Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 24, 2019

Bruny, by Heather Rose

Heather Rose was the author of three adult novels before she won the 2017 Stella Prize for The Museum of Modern Love, and I meant to chase up these earlier novels — but so many other books were clamouring for my attention…

So  I came to Bruny knowing Rose only as a literary author of a meditation on art and love, and it was a surprise to discover that this gripping new novel is a powerful and intensely political satire.

And why not?  If you are the author of a prize-winning novel, and you know that everyone is going to read whatever you write next — why not take the opportunity to issue a wake-up call?

This literary thriller/love story has plenty of surprises in its cleverly constructed plot.  This is the blurb:

How far would your government go?

A right-wing US president has withdrawn America from the Middle East and the UN. Daesh has a thoroughfare to the sea and China is Australia’s newest ally. When a bomb goes off in remote Tasmania, Astrid Coleman agrees to return home to help her brother before an upcoming election. But this is no simple task. Her brother and sister are on either side of politics, the community is full of conspiracy theories, and her father is quoting Shakespeare. Only on Bruny does the world seem sane.

Until Astrid discovers how far the government is willing to go.

Bruny is a searing, subversive, brilliant novel about family, love, loyalty and the new world order.

Set some time in the very near future, Bruny features a Tasmania that is the focus for startling levels of Chinese investment and a world where the US gets that president, and we see the values we relied on America to uphold trickle away like sand.

Although aspects of the scenario seem far-fetched, it allows the author to explore issues about Australian identity, values, and political apathy.  When Astrid (a.k.a. Ace) discovers what is going on under the radar and its assault on Australian identity and values, she is convinced that Australians won’t stand for it.  But Ace has been out of the country for a very long time.  She receives a harsh rejoinder:

‘Ace, your altruism if showing.  Why do we nothing substantial about climate change?  Why do we do virtually nothing to improve the lives of the poor?  Or bother about those refugees on Nauru and Manus? We like our comfortable lives.  We don’t want to give anything up.  We fear the loss of comfort.’ (p.318)

She also gets a reminder that there are very harsh penalties for protesting in the Australia she has come back to, and the media has had a role in the nation’s complacency. Discussing the confirmation of Xi Jinping as Chinese President for Life and the implications for Australia, they say:

…’It’s a concern for China.  Strongman leadership is never a good idea.  Most of them aren’t benevolent.’
‘And for Australians?’
‘You and I might be discussing this, but out in the suburbs Australians aren’t discussing the Chinese.  Maybe not even here in Tasmania.’
“What do you think they are discussing?’
‘Married at First sight.’
I nodded.
‘I remember intelligent TV,’ he said.  ‘I’m sure you do too.  BBC. Civilisation.  Brideshead Revisited. What people watch now, it’s the last days of the Roman Empire.  It’s the lead in the water.’ (p.298)

[I’m guessing that if you’re reading this blog, you probably don’t watch Married at First Sight.]

This allusion to a 1981 TV adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel and Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series about the history of Western art, architecture and philosophy points to an aspect of the characterisation that I really liked.  Bruny’s central character is a great representation of an older woman who is comfortable in her own skin. She has an international career as a conflict resolution negotiator.  She has a couple of adult children, an ex-husband and no regrets.  Like the characters in Kate Grenville’s The Idea of Perfection (1999) she and the potential love interest are on opposite sides of a value-laden issue which matters more to both of them than the prospect of a relationship.  As in The Museum of Modern Love, love is contingent on more than the stars aligning.

Readers of The Museum of Modern Love will also find the same preoccupations in Bruny: how much does culture matter?  What is art for? Ace and Edward discuss how the neglect of the arts has made the State vulnerable. ‘Nobody with a strong culture can be bought,’ says Edward.

‘There’s no price high enough for people who have land and community in their blood.  Haven’t we learned that from every indigenous culture that has clung to their ways and their land to the death? This government, at a state and a federal level, they’ve hammered the arts of years.  They’ve eviscerated it.  How the ABC has hung on is a miracle, and now, with all these hyenas circling, they’ll almost certainly be forced to privatise.  And then it’s over.  No national public broadcaster.  The right-wing press will win.  Every theatre company or film production company in this country—unless it’s making a Marvel movie—has been defunded.  That our cultural expression, and if we don’t have that, it weakens everything. (p.332)

[It’s just an accident of timing, but the publication of Bruny coincides with the news that Island Magazine has been defunded by the Tasmanian government.]

When all is said and done, it’s the arts that define who we are as Australians.  Our values and our identity are expressed through the arts in all sorts of ways.

This is a highly entertaining novel, with strong characterisation and a tight compelling plot that invites lively discussion.  However, I did find myself wondering how Chinese Australians might view this critique of Chinese investment in our country.  I feel some ambivalence about Chinese investment in Australia, just as I feel ambivalent about any powerful country having the potential to influence our economy and politics in adverse ways.  But I’m also aware that Australia is a small, middle-ranking country that depends on foreign investment to maintain its standard of living, and also that Australia has its own foreign investments, through our superannuation savings and investment portfolios, as well through corporate activity.  It’s how the global economy works, and while we might have doubts about the level of investments flowing in and out of the country, that’s a separate issue to objecting to investments from a particular source.

There can be no doubt that this is a topical issue.  The anxiety about Chinese investment doesn’t seem to be just because we don’t share the same values as China and we worry about their human rights record.  (You could say exactly the same about trading with Iran, or Saudi Arabia).  It also seems to be about more than just money: after all, until recently, Belgium had more investments in Australia than China. (This report is from 2016 but this point about Belgium is also mentioned in passing on the Radio National program Big Ideas, Australian and the European Union, at 22.40 in the recording).  If you are keen you can read the opinions of Clive Hamilton in his 2018 book Silent Invasion (on my TBR), about what he sees as the alarming level of Chinese political and economic influence in Australia; see also the review at The Conversation which rebuts some of his concerns. For an article about Australia’s economic dependence on China, see here.

There are all kinds of Chinese Australians in Australia.  There are some whose families have been here since the Gold Rush, and some who were grateful to be allowed to stay after the Tiananmen Square Massacre.  There are others who’ve come escaping persecution in Indonesia and Malaysia, while others from Hong Kong, Taiwan and Singapore have come because they were attracted by the lifestyle and business opportunities that are here.  My dentist is Chinese-Australian, and so is my pharmacist.  We have friends and neighbours who are Chinese-Australian, and I have taught hundreds of kids of Chinese origin as well.  Heather Rose doesn’t feature any local Chinese as major characters, and the book might have been more nuanced if she had.

I wouldn’t like it if any Chinese Australians were made to feel uncomfortable because of this book’s preoccupations…

Author: Heather Rose
Title: Bruny
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2019, 406 pages
ISBN: 9781760875169
Review copy courtesy of Allen and Unwin

Available from Fishpond: Bruny

 


Responses

  1. I agree with your thought on Chinese investments and this book keeps hitting me in the face here in Tassie. Another ‘Need to read’. Aghhh! And No, I hate the idea of a tv show called Married at First Sight. Idiocy.

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  2. Chinese investment is a particularly hot button issue for some of my Tasmanian family and friends. I agree with you, Lisa, and would hate to see Chinese Australians made uncomfortable by our current (somewhat xenophobic) preoccupations. And I need to read this book :-)

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  3. Would I be right in saying that Tassie generally is not as multicultural as the rest of Australia?

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  4. The Museum of Modern Love is one of the great recent novels. I’ll chase this one up. My dentist is decidedly ocker, and my doctor is Indian via Malaysia, but I know/have met Chinese from still coming in the door to fifth gen Oz. – and x Mrs Legend’s great great grandfather was a Chinese on the Ballarat gold fields, so my children are, amongst other things, Chinese.

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    • I’ve just had a look at some of the reviews at Goodreads: most have rated this 5-stars, but a couple are dubious about it being ‘too political’.
      So that’s interesting in itself…

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  5. I’ve just finished this book… I had a major problem with it: I just did not believe the premise and so I couldn’t shake the feeling the entire novel was preposterous. I appreciated the political satire but I’m not sure that could save it for me… will review on my blog soon once I’ve let my thoughts settle a bit more…

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    • I hear you, I thought so too at first: it is a daft premise. But Indigenous people have had land sold out from under them for 200+ years, and we’re never going to get sovereignty back at Pine Gap.
      I’ll be interested to see how you review it without giving the game away!

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      • Good point! I went to the Perth launch a few weeks ago (it was held in a Freo pub 10 minutes walk from me) and they managed to talk about the book for 45 minutes + without giving away any plot spoilers so it shouldn’t be too hard …

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        • Lucky you!

          Liked by 1 person

          • I dragged my poor parents along for a bit of bookish culture… not sure what they made of it 🤪

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            • I’m sure you made up for it with some warm WA sunshine:)

              Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Bruny by Heather Rose (Allen and Unwin), see my review […]

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