Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 9, 2021

The Architect, by Jillian Watkinson

My first Australian novel for 2021 has been long out of print, but it was an excellent choice to start my reading year.

The Architect was the debut novel of Jillian Watkinson, and (under the title ‘Shoelaces’) it won the 1999 inaugural Best Manuscript in the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards, and was also shortlisted for the 2001 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards.  Watkinson published a further novel called The Hanging Tree in 2004, but I haven’t been able to find much else about her except that she submitted a MPhil Thesis called ‘Beachcomber’s Bed’ in 2007.

The Architect is harrowing reading, but full of insights such as this one…

Clint and Jules are visiting a cattle-station owned by Jock who doesn’t realise that one-armed Jules (the architect) can only use his remaining arm with the aid of a hidden splint and can’t do something as everyday as opening the gates for the cattle to go through.

At the yards Clint rescues me from the improbable task.  He is laughing as he uncovers his face from a blue bandanna.  I think that I have never heard Clint laugh.  He steps from a saddle, a Drysdale caricature come to animation, and until now I have had no reference point from which to understand that painter’s interpretation of the Australian land’s impact on a person.  Clint drinks from a canteen, gargles and spits; sinew and bone, the body desiccated by the idea of dust and ashes, stretched between earth and sky, the elongation necessary to accommodate a searching soul. (p.248)

I have always associated Drysdale’s elongated figures with Modigliani, so I like this alternative conception of the ‘searching soul’. I also like the clever way Jules’s origins outside Australia are signalled not just by his unfamiliarity with rural Australian but also by the grammatical correctness and slightly stilted formality of his narration.  It’s not exaggerated; it’s just right.


Jules has been badly burned in a motorcycle accident, 60% of his body according to Donna whose narration begins the novel.  (There are multiple narrators). She is a burnt-out nurse, anguished that she has become inured to the pain she witnesses in the burns unit where she works.  She expected Jules to die, and her narration of his suffering spares the reader very little.  Improbably, he survives, and she defers her resignation until he leaves hospital.  She then becomes his carer, not just helping him with everyday life, but also tending to his ruined body while for years he endures skin grafts, infections and pain not fully ameliorated by morphine.  Watkinson has been a registered nurse and though no one else can feel another’s pain, this account breathes authenticity and it lays bare what must be real life for burns victims who we hear about in the media.

At the same time, Jules has to adapt: he can no longer express his creativity.  He is a world-renowned architect, an internationally famous photo-journalist, and he painted and played the guitar. But it is not only his physical disability depicted in this novel: he has retreated into himself. He was always a private person anyway, hiding his inability to love behind an aloof public persona of elegant clothes and style.  A succession of failed relationships including estrangement from his children emerges as Donna’s duties include dealing with his international financial transactions and messages via answer-machine and email.  Jules is a very flawed character, never going to be the ‘inspirational’ role model for disability, buttressed by a supportive family.

However, an architectural team develops a way for him to contribute to a major project despite his inability to draw, and he finds himself having to fend off sexual attraction from Peter (who is bi) and Peter’s lover Chloe, a blind potter.  Donna falls a little bit in love with him too, but both these women become furious with him because he conceals himself.  He manipulates his movements so that he is freed from Chloe’s pity but this disempowers her: she does not know what everyone else can see and has not told her, reinforcing her blindness.  Donna is furious because he disempowers her too.  It is her professional responsibility to care for him, and his stoicism makes this impossible. When he finally cracks after many months, she is appalled that out of fear he has denied himself relief that could have been available.

The characterisation of people transcending disability is powerful.  It’s not just Chloe who makes beautiful (bankable) pots; Marc, who witnessed Jules’s accident is a doctor in a wheelchair.  There’s a lovely moment when he is lifted into the saddle by his brothers and boasts as he canters back to Jules that, see, there’s nothing he can’t do. To which his brother Jock replies laconically, ‘You’re lousy at housework.’   It’s moments like this that make Jules yearn for the unspoken understandings that come with family life.  But there are also moments that de-romanticise the idea of invincible disability: Jules puts a book out of reach when he doesn’t want Marc to see it; Jules can’t tie his own shoelaces or open that gate.  He doesn’t care much about the gate, though he’d rather be ‘rescued’ than have to ask for help, but he does want to wear shoes with laces.

From what I could see of Watkinson’s description of her MPhil thesis, she was interested in subverting the romance genre, and she certainly does that in this novel.  Marc and Clint are looking for a father-figure from a man who has failed fatherhood; everyone is looking for openness from a man whose career turns out to have demanded concealment; and the love interests all know that sex doesn’t yield the intimacy that they want.

It’s a very interesting book.

Author: Jillian Watkinson
Title: The Architect
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press), 2000
ISBN: 9780702231841, pbk., 279 pages
Source: personal library

Availability: out of print.




  1. This does sound interesting Lisa, what a shame it’s out of print! I have never heard of the author and our library doesn’t have it. I’ll keep it in mind when I visit Op Shops. Have been too busy watching the ABC news the last couple of days to read much! Gracious what a start to the year in the US.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Indeed! I’ve spent a fair bit of my day reading about events in the US instead of doing what I usually do.
      I’m probably not alone in thinking that this day will end up having the same significance as 9/11.


  2. I wonder what the history books will make of the Trump era Lisa and it’s not quite over yet. It’s remarkable and horrifying all at once. I was thinking how much the journalists must be loving it in a way – even while they must also be appalled. What a year last year was, and 2021 is starting with a bang – Trump and the pandemic and the virus situation here in Australia continues to change. What times we do live in! I’d prefer less interesting times…

    How are you finding things in Melbourne post-lockdown? I hope you’re keeping well yourself.

    And I wonder what happened to the author of this novel?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I’d like to know about the author too.
      In the wake of Sputnik in 1957, you know, America took a long hard look at its education system, to see if there were reasons why the USSR beat them in the space race. That was a good idea but the disparities in opportunities for the rich and the poor were never resolved.
      And in the wake of 9/11, US universities started sending students overseas to study, anywhere where English wasn’t the language spoken, because they recognised how insular so many Americans were. Which was a good idea, but it only impacted students at elite institutions.
      I think we, the US, the UK and all the western democracies at risk of rising fascism need to take a long hard look at how and why so-called free and universal education has failed to teach clear thinking, tolerance of differing opinions, and respect for democratic institutions to a significant minority.
      I’ve heard it said that the unfairness of the global economy has something to do with the rise of fascism, and although I think that’s simplistic and not a direct cause anyway, I think they’re right that it’s unfair. But unless people believe that democratic institutions can be used to repair it, we won’t solve the problem.
      We need to do something urgently about education.


  3. Sounds interesting but gruelling Lisa. But I’m impressed by the sound of the realism, because there are so many cliches about disability and romance, with unrealistic portrayals. So it’s admirable that the author came up with a gritty look at it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I thought so too.
      Apparently the second book recycles some of the characters, but it’s not going to be easy to source.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This sounds very interesting and one I’d like to read. But the TBR is growing daily. How brave to tackle this subject. Women writing in Australia are doing amazing work.
    I think the class system in Australia requires serious attention. Education is the centre of a more informed populace but does not seem to be happening here. The dominance of sport over intellectual and artistic endeavours has barely shifted in my view and that cannot lead to a progressive and better society. The necessity of good general knowledge should be the basis of any decent education system. IMO specialisation has not been the great success some may think .Anyway these interesting times are with us for the immediate future it seem so thanks for this space of sanity Lisa.


    • LOL I don’t know about being a place of sanity!
      I agree about the inequities in education… but I was thinking in more specific terms. For years we have tolerated nonsense about astrology, even serious newspapers publishing predictions ‘for fun’; we have seen the rise of celebrity fools promoting diets and wellness and spurious cures and done nothing about it, we’ve even had the federal government allow health insurance claims for so-called alternative medicine such as homeopathy because “that’s what people want.” And then we wonder why people distrust science.
      Leaving aside what’s on commercial TV, we’ve watched The Drum Q&A and other ABC current affairs programs morph from programs that brought us experts and expertise into tabloid nonsense that privileges diversity over expertise so that the discussion no longer offers expert opinion and information.
      And then we wonder why people think that their opinion and the opinions of those in their own echo chambers have equal merit with people who’ve spent years studying a subject.
      These are just instances, but they point to a general willingness to believe nonsense and to privilege it.
      We could start with an episode of Q&A featuring all the Chief Medical Officers, without a studio audience, so that they could explain the nuances that have guided their decision-making. That would be real accountability…


  5. What a great conversation is going on here! Fay thank you for some good observations about our education system, increasingly public education seems to be under-resourced and seen as second best. My eldest brother refused to teach anywhere other than public schools as he saw free education as a vital public good, but was made despondent by the poor standing of teachers in the community and was relieved to retire several years ago.

    Lisa, I’ve watched as the ABC becomes increasingly dumbed-down, as have our major newspapers. All cafes seem to stock is The Telegraph. We should be very afraid.

    I haven’t mentioned that I started a course in primary teaching ages ago as a graduate student but was failed after my first practical because I used phonics to teach a young boy who had difficulty reading (he was improving!) Phonics at that time was not appreciated. I passed every subject in the course at university at HD level. I simply couldn’t afford to repeat and I walked out and left teaching in despair. This is what we do to aspiring teachers – I had two degrees at the time, this would have been my third, and I wanted to teach children with learning problems and boys in particular. I don’t know how we treat student teachers now, I hope it’s with more encouragement than I received!


    • That’s terrible… what a waste of a potential teachers and what a blow to you after all that work and effort.
      FWIW when I was at teachers’ college (1975-8) we were taught that there are multiple strategies used in learning to read and the good teacher is the one who finds the method that works for each child.


      • It was a terribly waste Lisa, and now of course phonics is endorsed – it certainly was working for that boy. They wanted high passing graduate students to enter teaching, which I was – and then they failed you for using your initiative. What appalled me was how many of even the graduate teaching students had difficulty with spelling – many of the grad students were anxious about how they could teach it, given that they couldn’t spell well themselves. That was worrying!

        I went back to work in hospitals!


        • Well, that was medicine’s advantage and education’s loss…


          • Thanks LIsa! I think I would have gone into an area such as learning disabilities, it’s a real shame.

            The concept of disability in the book is interesting from the review – the small things such as not being able to do up shoelaces I can relate to. As you know I have vision issues, and it’s often the small things that loom large – eg. I miss my shopping bag at the checkout and things I mean to go into it fall on the shop floor, because I can’t judge the depth perception accurately, it gets embarrassing! People just assume I’m clumsy.

            Sorry to hear about your ankle problem too, the joys of getting older!

            Liked by 1 person

  6. It’s interesting the way every now and then we come across a talented author who seems to have chosen not to write after getting the first one or two novels of their chest.
    I’m not sure free public education is the problem but rather its gutting by fat cats who send their children to private schools. Almost constant Liberal governments in Canberra have perverted education funding so thoroughly that the inequities cannot be overcome by state Labor governments (assuming they even want to).


    • I agree that the funding model is broken, but I was thinking more about the general philosophy of teaching: the focus on individualism, competitiveness and so on…


  7. Indeed Bill, in the short time I was able to teach at a public school (ie. my long prac) I had to purchase crayons, science teaching supplies & often books, myself as the public primary school simply didn’t have the funds to afford them. This was a school in a desperately poor area and you want the kids to get out of the cycle of multi-generational unemployment through education at least.

    I wonder why we think a writer should write more than one or two good books – we tend to want a good author to keep writing but I often think it’s wisest to stop while you’re on a winner!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I wasn’t going to comment on this because I don’t want people to go looking for them, but I think she may have been discouraged by reviews. I found a really spiteful one in an obscure journal which said much more about the reviewer than the book, it was obviously personal in its nastiness, and jealous of the awards she won and was nominated for. But it’s easier for me to say that than for a debut author to shrug off.


  8. I was talking to a friend only recently about how difficult it must be for an author to read critical reviews of their books Lisa – i’m sure I wouldn’t cope at all, it would be so disheartening.


  9. I’m glad you wrote about this book, Lisa – I’m going to check it out now as I’m interested in books that depict people with disability. However I don’t think that a disability can be ‘transcended’ – it always remains a part of a person. The idea that a disabled person should be inspirational is also problematic, because it removes the onus on an able-bodied society to do anything about inaccessibility ie if disabled people are able to ‘overcome’ barriers & inspire everyone in doing so, then why should the status quo change? Disabled people can be (and are) awful just like everyone else, but you do gesture to this re the housework (which made me smile). The late Stella Young did a good TED talk on inspiration porn.

    I was wondering what might have prompted the author to write about this subject, but weirdly there is very little info about her. Anyway, I’m adding it to my TBR list.


    • I’m glad you commented here, Jess, because I remembered the term ‘inspiration porn’ but I couldn’t remember where I’d heard it, and *chuckle* you can guess why I didn’t want to google it.
      I may not have expressed it well, but I think this is what Watkinson was on about, this prevalent idea that characters like the doctor in the wheelchair are ‘inspirational’ and that disabled people can do anything. She shows well, I think, (though I’d love to see what you think of it because you’re better read in this area than I am) that there’s a long journey involved in rehab, that body image takes a battering, that people often don’t understand even the simplest of things about what it can be like, and how demoralising that can be. And if you’re not a nice person to start with, that’s not going to change.
      Disabled people, as you say, can do things if society enables it… but only up to a point. I’m having trouble with my pesky ankle this week. It’s not a major disability but it’s one of many disabilities that occur as we get older, and it can make life difficult. I can get round in Paris if I wear a brace and take a stick and my husband takes my arm on the cobblestones, but at the end of the day I can’t, by myself, get down a slope that doesn’t have a bannister, and I can’t run to catch a bus, and if I overdo things, then tolerable chronic pain becomes intolerable.
      I choose Paris as an example, because it is a difficult city for physically disabled people. My first visit there was three weeks after my first ankle op, and I was walking with a stick even on flat surfaces. I couldn’t believe it when we arrived at Gare du Nord and found there was no lift. There is more we could do in Melbourne, but it’s infinitely better than that!
      Let me know if you can’t get hold of a copy and I’ll send mine up to you.


      • Ha, yes, the Parisians are all about aesthetics first, and pah to anyone else! I think it’s hard for most people to conceptualise what it’s like to be disabled in this world unless they are hampered themselves (my mother, becoming increasingly frail, now understands why I get so tired all the time!).

        I’m even more interested in reading the book after your last comment, and can order a copy from Abebooks, which I’ll do soon as I have a heap of other things I need to order. I wonder too if I might be able to track the author down via UQP to ask her about it (another thing to add to my list!). Anyway, thanks again for highlighting the book – I’m looking forward to it now – and I hope your ankle sorts itself out.


  10. Well, I have never heard of her or this book Lisa. I haven’t read all your review, particularly because of the spoiler warning, so I haven’t read all the comments, though I suppose I never will get to this book. However, it sounds like it generated a great discussion about a variety of subjects. That sounds to me as though both the book and your review are good!


    • By coincidence Theresa has just read a book about two people in a rehab ward, each fighting their own demons. Well handled, it’s a rich theme, as long as it doesn’t contribute to stereotypes.
      Carly Findlay’s anthology Growing Up Disabled in Australia is out next month…

      Liked by 1 person

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