Review of The Golden Day
There is an intriguing moment in this novel that finds two Sydney school girls in a rowboat on the Lane Cove River. They come upon an abandoned picnic area called Fairyland amid the mangroves and peeling paperbarks.
The boat floated further on. Peering out from the depths of the gums stood a flat and faded wooden Snow White, black hair, blue dress, pink skin, red lips.
“It looks so old,” said Cubby.
“It is old,” said Icara. “It’s like a picnic place. It closed down. Ages ago.”
The reference to Huckleberry Finn’s discovery of the Sir Walter Scott, a wrecked steamboat, is clear. Huck’s boat was the romantic Old South, ruined and abandoned. Fairyland, on the Lane Cove River will evoke, in Dubosarsky’s new novel, the lost innocence of the girls and Australia itself
It begins on the day that Ronald Ryan was hanged in 1967 and finishes, on a truly eerie note, eight years later in a much altered nation. The key event in the story revolves around an excursion to a local park taken by a small group of girls and their teacher, Miss Renshaw. It is impossible not to recall Joan Lindsay’s classic Picnic at Hanging Rock which was first published in 1967. And, of course, something does happen. On top of being a novel that evokes, strikingly, this period in Australian life, it is also a tantalising mystery story. In this manner it is similar to Lindsay’s novel and Peter Weir’s even better known film version. In fact, there is a timeless quality to the interior scenes at the school which suggest that the girls are living in a kind if “last days” world of Federation era Australia, on the cusp of great change. Eight years later, they are pondering careers in Law and Occupational Therapy. One of the many facets of the story is a glimpse at the formative years of the first generation of women to reap the benefits of the feminist movement.
As with Dubosarsky’s previous novel, The Red Shoe, the story operates on several closely linked levels. Ronald Ryan’s execution is sometimes regarded as a watershed event in Australian history. The protestors who stood in vigil outside of Pentridge Prison the night before he was executed would soon be marching against Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. Morgan, the mysterious poet who works in the garden the girls visit, is said to be a conscientious objector. The girls ask him at one point if he is a “hippie.”
The first section of the novel begins with the quote from The Hombres 1967 hit, “Let it out” (Let in all hang out), a pointedly appropriate choice. Change is certainly in the air, but Dubosarsky shows it to the reader through the eyes of a child. Cubby, like Matilda in The Red Shoe, experiences the broader change on a purely emotional level. Children do not place news events in a separate box from personal events, so that Ronald Ryan, the Vietnam War, and the emerging counter culture, are all understood by Cubby through her relationships with the other girls, her teachers, and the events in the central narrative of The Golden Day.
The effect is chilling in some sections, touching in others. Most adults can point to a particular traumatic news event from their childhood and remember the confusion and fear of trying to make sense of it all. Those of us in our mid-forties might ponder how events like Watergate in the US and the Whitlam dismissal coloured our views of the political process. But we can perhaps also recall the reactions of our parents and the sense of uncertainty surrounding these events. Capturing this in a novel is no easy trick, and Dubosarsky has done it here in an evocative and often heartbreaking manner.
This is major work of fiction by one of Australia’s most talented writers. The urban landscape in this country has sometimes proved elusive for novelists. There are some fine examples, of course, such as Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, but too often cities are reduced to a litany of street names or neighbourhoods. The Golden Day evokes Sydney in a manner that is as subtle as it is charming. Whether it is the breeze from the harbour on a hot day, or the smell of the back lanes near the school, Dubosarsky’s tale truly inhabits its setting. But she also calls up its stories. The spectre of the 1963 Bogle-Chandler murders hangs over the incident at the centre of the novel. The “Who killed Juanita?” graffiti in the 1975 section contrasts the ancient cave paintings that lie beneath the suburb where the girls live. Somewhere lurking in the background too is the disappearance of the Beaumont children in 1963. Tolkien’s term “mythopoeic” comes to mind. In The Red Shoe Dubosarsky brought the Petrov Affair into the urban landscape. What was previously only a fading news event from the 1950s was recast as part of collective consciousness of Australian life in that period. Her stories avoid the heavy handedness of historical fiction by mining the emotional outlines rather than the obvious dialectical implications.
In addition to being beautifully written, it is also difficult to put down. One can imagine students impatiently reading ahead while it is being shared in class. The class that wouldn’t respond to this book would be a challenging group indeed.
But hopefully The Golden Day will be more than just a popular text in schools. Ursula Dubosarsky’s book should be reviewed seriously, and not simply consigned to any basket. In a period where over-hyped soap operas posing as serious literature are treated as major events, I hope that there is still room for a thought-provoking and quietly beautiful novel like this on.
Published in Viewpoint on October 8, 2011.