Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 21, 2021

Chasing the McCubbin (2021), by Sandi Scaunich

The first thing I noticed about this thoughtful debut novel was the authenticity of the characters in Chasing the McCubbin.  Set during the recession of the 1990s when the Centrelink juggernaut did not exist and vulnerable people went for welfare support to the CES (Commonwealth Employment Service), the story features a lost soul called Jo (Joseph) and his unlikely mentor, Ron, an eccentric trader in antiques and (more commonly) junk from garage sales. 

Jo’s mother Leonie is a lost soul too.  With PTSD after extreme domestic violence, she is barely functioning.  Jo, setting off for his first encounter with Ron, leaves his mum to sleep and wake and boil the kettle and eat toast and watch daytime television wrapped safely in her fading blue dressing gown.

He sees her body, still and serene, but that is all.  She is hollow.  It is as though the mother he knew crawled out from her skin long ago, seeking refuge, perhaps escaping to somewhere safer.  Usually, when she glances his way, she does not see him.  He is a faceless silhouette that no one notices, not even his mum.  He is part stranger, part son, part dole bludger, a boy from The Pines: a combination of scattered pieces, and nothing, all at the same time.  (p.12)

The Pines is a disadvantaged area within the Melbourne outer suburb of Frankston, and Jo’s future looks bleak whether there’s a recession or not.  But a chance meeting between his mother and Ron in the queue at the CES leads to a job offer of sorts.  Not one that pays a salary, not a job that will affect his unemployment benefit, but one based on a share of the money they might make.  With the bank about to foreclose on the house, 19-year-old Jo has to step up and do something.  Anything…

Ron’s wife has died, and he needs someone to navigate the van when he goes ‘scrounging’ at the garage sales that are proliferating as people try to find ways to make a little money.  Jo can’t drive because there’s no one to teach him and no car to practise in, but he turns out to be good at reading maps and at planning journeys to minimise the cost of petrol.  And he’s an extra pair of hands to help lug their finds to the van, or to stand guard over some treasure to prevent some other would-be buyer making off with it.  He learns to help with sanding old bits of furniture, and over time he begins to recognise items which can be resold to other dealers at a profit. 

Reading this novel puts me in mind of The Antiques Road Show and the dumbfounded expressions of people who’ve discovered the value of something they thought was worth much less than the expert’s appraisal.  This show probably accounts for the inflated value some of Ron’s sources put on their wares.  

Apparently the TV show doesn’t usually show the counterfeit items that are worthless (so as not to embarrass their owners), but Ron is alert to the problem of replicas.  

‘It’s even taken me a while to get the hang of pottery.  Take William Ricketts, for example. An artist was making exact replicas.  They were so alike, you couldn’t tell the bloody difference.  There was this one time I thought I’d stumbled across these William Ricketts bookends.  I was thinking, “You little beauty!” As soon as I picked one up, though, I had my suspicions.  It wasn’t terracotta, more like a resin.  Anyway, sure enough, I scanned the bottom and this rip-off made it.’ Ron’s lips curl into a smirk.  Then Red Wagon [one of Ron’s rivals] goes and grabs the same thing, pays, and takes off like lightning! I tried to tell him it wasn’t the real deal but he thought he knew better.  Those fakes fooled people left, right and centre.’ (pp.63-4) 

Peopled with equally eccentric competitors seeking the elusive bargain worth a fortune, Chasing the McCubbin reveals Ron’s generosity of spirit.  With a wealth of anecdotes to enliven the driving, he takes genuine pleasure even in his competitor’s success.

‘The Grub seems to have a sixth sense and always knows where to look.  But me mate Lucky beat him this one time.’ Ron’s voice becomes upbeat.  ‘The Grub was looking over a table at a garage sale and went right past a piece of nineteen thirties Arthur Boyd pottery.  Lucky had ben to the Arthur Boyd museum in New South somewhere, so he knew it straight away—it wasn’t your typical Boyd.  It was blue, and that’s rare, and only Lucky knew it.’ Ron chuckles. ‘And he got about six hundred for it!’

Not averse to the idea of discovering a treasure myself, I was briefly excited to read that blue Boyds are rare and valuable.  Alas our little blue pot on the right was made by The Spouse’s mother during her pottery phase, and while the yellow one is indeed a Boyd—it’s signed by Martin Boyd, worth about $25.  Oh well…

Chasing the McCubbin is a story about new beginnings, and its title is very appropriate.  Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), as Australians will know, was an Australian artist, and a prominent member of the Heidelberg School art movement.  Most of his paintings are in national and state galleries, but if they ever came on the art market, those paintings would be worth a fortune.  Ron buoys Jo with his dream of finding a lost McCubbin which will change their lives, but he succeeds in changing Jo’s life in simpler ways.  He’s a rough diamond, intolerant of his rivals and given to categorising the people he deals with by their ethnicity, but he is kind to this withdrawn youth.  They are company for one another, and they come to share the pleasure of the quest.  

I don’t often quote blurbers, but Graeme Simsion’s comments in the press release about Chasing the McCubbin are apt:

‘Truly fine writing with a great sense of characters and place, sympathetic and heartfelt without being sentimental, Scaunich pulls us into a fascinating world of low stakes and petty rivalries.’ 

You can find out more about Sandi Scaunich at her website.

Author: Sandi Scaunich
Title: Chasing the McCubbin
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2021
ISBN: 9781925760590, pbk., 265 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge



  1. Frankston was always a byword for ‘underclass’ though I suppose while I’ve been away it’s become another posh bayside suburb.
    Wouldn’t that be fun to turn up a McCubbin. I know mum has some Boyd pottery, I’ll have to check if it’s the valuable sort before one of my brothers puts dibs on it.


    • I’m not sure about Frankston… the parts on Oliver’s Hill with the view over the bay are probably very expensive, and always have been, but I think The Pines has long been differentiated from the rest of it because it was a housing commission area with all the stigma attached to that. (They don’t build those estates any more, but instead provide ‘spot’ housing with a house here and there among ordinary privately owned houses. We have one in our street. Unfortunately you can tell which ones they are because while everyone else is renovating, social housing doesn’t even get maintenance painting. With such a long waiting list for social housing, I suppose it’s because they focus the dollar on acquiring more stock, which is getting more and more expensive in Melbourne, but still, it’s hard for people when the “landlord’s” neglect is so obvious.
      There’s a lot more needs to be done…

      I know people from Frankston who’ve done well and don’t fit the ‘underclass’ label at all. One is an accountant and the other is a teacher.


  2. Tomorrow I am buying a book. This may well be the book I am buying. :-)


    • Lisa is a bad influence again!


      • I love it! Thank you.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Well, Lisa, I now have a copy. The big question is: when will I read it?


        • *chuckle*
          You can talk, when I am going to read the entire Dorothy Dunnett oeuvre?


  3. Love your reference to Antiques Road Show, Lisa. Mr Gums hates the focus on the value of the items. I take his point, but for me the interest is the history we learn from them. I love old items. I don’t really care how much they are worth, but the stories they tell.

    BTW I hate to disabuse you, but I don’t think your Martin Boyd is Martin Boyd. It’s from his nephew Guy Boyd’s pottery. I wrote about this in a post 9 years ago! I have a few “Martin Boyd” pieces too, and in fact used one on my reading group supper table last night! (Apologies if I’m wrong about your piece.)

    Anyhow, I hadn’t heard of this book but it sounds great.


    • Mostly, I’m with Mr Gums: the show is often a testament to greed. But sometimes there is, as you say, an interesting back story.
      But as to Martin Boyd, real or otherwise, I wouldn’t have a clue. The Spouse had connections in the art world in a past life, and it’s got sentimental meaning for him. For me, it’s just something to dust.


      • I agree with Mr Gums too on the fascination with value, but the history makes it worthwhile for me – not that I watch it regularly at all, but I never mind catching bits of it when waiting for something else.

        Re the Boyd. I’d say it’s a real Boyd from the famous Boyd family but not Martin because he wasn’t the potter. Guy just used his name. Our friends who have Australian pottery at Bemboka, and from which I bought my first piece, have written the history up


        • Yes, same here, sometimes it’s on before the news, or The Drum… or something!


  4. […] Chasing the McCubbin, by Sandi Scaunich […]


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