Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 27, 2018

Shell, by Kristina Olsson #BookReview

As I wrote when I posted a Sensational Snippet from Kristina Olsson’s new novel Shell, I have fallen in love with this book so it’s not going to be easy to write an objective review.  I have mulled over the book for two days since I finished reading it, and I still feel a frisson of pleasure when I set eyes on it. It’s my Book of the Year, and it might even be the Book of the Decade, in the same way that Kim Scott’s That Deadman Dance turned out to be a Book of the Decade, for me.

For starters, it is beautifully published.  Designed by Christabella Designs to mark the first book published by Scribner Australia (an imprint of Simon and Schuster), the hardback edition has creamy pale-pink textured boards imprinted with the same glorious image as the dustcover—it’s a photograph called Red Storm Day by Jean-Pierre Bratanoff-Firgoff.  The endpaper images are a sketch and a site plan from the Red Book of Jørn Utzon, the architect of the Sydney Opera House.  This is a book which heralds its status as a masterpiece even as the reader holds it in the hand.

I am not the only one utterly captivated by Shell: it has had glowing reviews in the print media, and its impressive list of blurbers includes this comment from Ashley Hay, author of The Railwayman’s Wife and A Hundred Little Lessons:

Shell sanctifies the greatest of our ideas and being, from love, courage and betrayal to creation and dissent… It’s the kind of book that opens out its readers, making them think and feel. It’s the kind of book I’ll carry with me for all time.

Kristina Olsson Photo by Amelia J. Dowd*

What Ashley Hay says is true.  On almost every page, there’s something to make the reader pause to think, because the book explores fundamental truths and issues that still resonate now in the 21st century.  Although it’s set in an historical period, it’s not historical fiction of the genre variety.  It’s a book that explores history in a new and reflective way.  (See Fred Khumalo’s article about how contemporary historical fiction is being written in South Africa with attitude and a breathless literary intensity; a fire in its belly.)  As Kristina said at the author talk at Readings Hawthorn this week, the book is not ‘about’ the Sydney Opera House.  It’s ‘about’ much more than the sad and sorry story of the humiliation of its architect by a populist NSW state government and its hectoring media.  It’s also the novel we’ve been waiting for, that tells the story of the grass roots movement that emerged to fight against conscription and the Vietnam War.  It shows how Vietnam divided families, and it reveals that excoriating fear that many of us felt about the prospect of someone we loved being sent away to fight in a war.  It reminds us of the cynicism of a government and its compliant electorate that sent 20-year-old conscripts to war — when these conscripts did not have the vote and were legally underage.  200 of the 521 men who died in Vietnam were conscripts and 1459 of the 3000 wounded were ‘Nashos’ too.

The novel begins with a prologue in 1960, a year after construction began on Utzon’s masterpiece when Paul Robeson sang for the workers, a performance which is still electrifying today.  (You can read more about Paul Robeson and why he came to be singing for a bunch of Aussie hard hats in Jeff Sparrow’s wonderful No Way But This, In Search of Paul Robeson.)


Shell then traverses the years 1965 to 1966, through the central character Pearl.  Pearl is a journalist consigned to the Women’s Pages at a Brisbane newspaper because she was photographed at a protest against Menzies’ covert midnight bill to introduce the draft.  (For those not old enough to remember, the Women’s Pages featured cooking, knitting, fashion, weddings and the social pages.  For a journalist, it was career death, and as Kristina reminded us at Readings, this form of ‘discipline’ was not uncommon.)  One of the elements of this novel that I really liked was Pearl’s draft series called ‘Affront’.  She begins working on profiles of forgotten women writers: Kylie Tennant, Eleanor Dark, Katharine Susannah Prichard, Christina Stead, and someone I’d never heard of, Jean Devanny (a friend of Miles Franklin’s).  Well, I now have a copy of Sugar Heaven [Yes, Bill, I’ll send it on to you when I’ve read it!] and am looking out for The Butcher Shop which Goodreads tells me was banned in New Zealand and later Australia for being disgusting, indecent and communistic – in other words, for promoting revolutionary ideas about the role of women and for a bold portrayal of the brutality of farm life. It comes as no surprise in the novel that Pearl’s first two profiles are buried in the Christmas holiday editions of her newspaper…

Pearl has two brothers at risk of the draft, with whom she has lost touch.  When the story opens she is desperate to find them so that— with her contacts in the anti-war movement, she can save them from their fate, possibly hidden by the underground resistance movement.  These missing brothers signify many absences in the novel: there is also the first cohort of soldiers on a ship that sneaked out of Sydney Harbour at midnight, and the absence of the hoopla and tearful farewells that accompanied the departure of troops in WW1 and WW2.  Apart from the forgotten women writers, the assassinated President Kennedy is the hole in America and Pearl’s young man Axel never succeeds in finding his hero Utzon who remains an unseen presence throughout the book.  Axel, who is a Swedish craftsman hired to do the opera house glasswork, has a father who mysteriously disappeared, and Pearl has an aborted child.  And Australia itself has a missing heartland: though the presence of its First Nations is everywhere, there is its failure to come to terms with the dispossession that underlies settlement, and the Red Centre is said to be empty.  Axel recognises this because he’s an outsider, ‘learning’ Australia as new migrants do.

But the absence that haunts this book most of all, is the repudiation of beauty: government interference demanding the cheapest, not the best for its landmark building.  It wasn’t just conformity that propelled the disgraceful treatment of Utzon, it was a fundamental absence of trust.  Australians are too ready to believe that everyone is out to rip us off, that no expert is better than we are, and that people can’t be trusted not to take advantage. This attitude bedevils us still when large public buildings are mooted.  Do we think we don’t deserve beauty?

There is so much to think about in this stunning book and I fear I haven’t done it justice.  I look forward to hearing what other readers think about it…

Update: Becky’s review at Becky’s Books is here.

*Photo credit: Photographer Amelia J Dowd, courtesy of Simon and Schuster 

Author: Kristina Olsson
Title: Shell
Publisher: Scribner, (an imprint of Simon and Schuster, 2018, 374pp
ISBN: 9781925685329 (hbk.)
Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh $34.99

Available from Fishpond: Shell


  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.


  2. This sounds amazing, and I hadn’t heard about it before, so thank you for bringing it to my attention and writing such a convincing account of it.


    • Hello Rohan, thanks for dropping by. It’s going to be widely available, including as an eBook so you shouldn’t have any difficulty getting hold of a copy:)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Christina Olsson was here in town last week launching her book Shell. I had something else on so didn’t get to go. I would be surprised if our book group doesn’t read this during 2019. 🤠🐧


    • It would be a great book for book groups. I’ve barely scratched the surface of all there is to talk about.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I won’t miss it for it coincides with my time in Sydney and remember well the moratorium marches and wishing I could be there instead I was at home with three small children and very very isolated. All of the writers you mention I have since read and worthy of attention. Unfortunately I abandoned a thesis on Jean Devanny some thirty years later.She was another outsider; a communist, feminist, who upset many in her midst. Another talented woman who did not reach her potential. There are still oh so many people unfortunately who know very little of our recent history. Australia was a hard place as Slim Dusty sings “It’s a hard hard country a hard hard land, And if you want to live in it you’ve got to be a hard hard man. Makes it even harder for everyone else.


    • You must be a little bit older than me, Fay. I was a bit younger, and didn’t become aware of things till about 1969, and even then I tended to view it all through the prism of what was happening to the people I knew, rather than the big picture. And, like the boys eligible for the draft, I wasn’t old enough to vote in that magical election of 1972!


  5. I found it and it’s on my wish list – probably both read and listen. :-) Thanks.


    • Excellent, I look forward to hearing what you think about it:)




  7. Reblogged this on LIVING THE DREAM.


  8. This sounds fabulous, Lisa. And guess what: it has been published in the UK!!! Happy dance!!!


  9. I think it’s been released in the US too, and I guess that’s because the SHO has an international profile?


  10. Book of the year, book of the decade? Wow 😍 – gotta get my hands on that


    • Yup.
      I have had to work hard at not gushing about it:)


      • You don’t normally gush which is why I have to get a copy now – your gushing is usually limited to ‘highly recommended’ which is usually enough to send me out looking for a copy of the book you have reviewed


  11. Well, now I am very glad that I bought a copy. What an insightful review, thanks Lisa.


  12. Thanks for the recommendation; I’ve added it to my TBR. Whereupon, I see that I had also added Boy, Lost – but of course I’ve forgotten why. Somewhere it is compared to All the LIght We Cannot See and The Flamethrowers, both books I liked but didn’t love as much as other readers loved them, so that makes me waver a titch, but I trust you! :)


    • Thank you, I appreciate that trust:)
      But, gosh, that reminds me, I still haven’t read All the Light We Cannot See!


  13. Well I’ll certainly read this – I always have a lot of trepidation approaching novels about the Vietnam War years – but if you’re right (and of course you are!) then Olsonn gets the period about right. I definitely voted in 1972 though as I was living in Joh territory outside Brisbane I doubt my vote made a difference. We forget now, but for 2 years, until Gough granted us all an amnesty, it was actually illegal for me, for draft resisters to be employed.

    Looking forwards thankyou to the Devanny. The only copy I ever had of her work I gave to a mutual friend for her birthday. I should have read it first.


    • Exactly: ‘we forget now’ and worse, younger generations do not know about these things except as a footnote in history.
      I will get onto the Devanny ASAP, nag me if I forget, please!


  14. It sounds great but is it readable if you’re not Australian?

    Or is it like Carey’s A Long Way From Home and totally obscure for readers with little knowledge of Australia’s history and culture?


  15. […] I was minded to read this novel because Kristina Olsson’s character in Shell, Pearl, refers to Kylie Tennant as one of the forgotten women writers that she plans to profile for […]


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