Deborah Burrows – A Time of Secrets

On reading selfishly.
I’ve just finished reading Deborah Burrows’ A Time of Secretsa novel that I picked up because…well…the cover caught my eye. So yes, I did judge a book by it’s cover, but for very good reason. The woman on the cover is wearing a WWII era AWAS (Australian Women’s Army Service) uniform and I am currently working on a PhD which will be a novel and exegesis focusing on some AWAS members. So of course I plucked the book off the shelf and added it to my ever growing ‘to read’ pile. At this stage of my PhD the majority of my reading has been non-fiction so it was wonderful to come across a novel set in the same era with similar themes.
A Time of Secrets is set in 1943 in Melbourne, with protagonist Stella Aldridge who is an AWAS sergeant working in the Australian Intelligence Bureau. Stella has two important mysteries to solve –  In chapter one she overhears some soldiers discussing a plot for a revenge killing which she determines to investigate, and then her work leads her to another mystery – who is leaking information from the Intelligence Bureau to the enemy? Weaved around these two key plots is romance, murder and the ongoing sense of good-guy/bad-guy with the reader constantly switching loyalties between Stella’s friends and love interests as more secrets are exposed.
This novel was a chance for me to read selfishly. While I read historical fiction quite widely and always take note of how research is woven into the text, I haven’t read any books that draws from the same (or similar) pool of research documents. The women I will be focusing on worked in the Survey Corps in Bendigo, so while there is a big difference in our plots and characterisations it was great to absorb the general mise en scene of WWII Melbourne – the rations, the music and of course, the Americans.
It also got me thinking about the publishing trends for a novel of this type. I’ve been lamenting the lack of representation of women’s war experience in Australia, in both popular culture and formal histories (by ‘lack’ I don’t mean that there is no representation, I just mean that it is minimal – but that’s a post for another time). So it was great to see that there was some shelf space for a novel like this and gave me some hope that mine might also find some space there one day.
Deborah Burrows, A Time of Secrets, Pan Macmillan Australia. 2015.

The Beautiful Room is Empty – Edmund White  



On Genre expectations.

The Beautiful Room is Empty has sat on my bookshelf for years. I finally decided to read it when I was researching the genre of Künstlerroman. Künstlerroman means ‘artist’s novel’ in German and is closely related to the genre of bildungsroman, where a novel focuses on the growth of a protagonist usually through youth. In the case of künstlerroman the novel focuses on the development of the protagonist into an artist.

The Beautiful Room is Empty is a great novel that explores psychoanalysis and sexual repression within 1950s and 60s America. Themes of social class and gay experience predominate and the fact that the characters are artists seems to be secondary to that. I was hoping to learn about the development of the character as an artist, but the character arc was more about the protagonist’s changes in emotional and sexual maturity. I’m not entirely sure that it does meet the genre of kunstlerroman, given that most of the artistic successes outlined in the text are those of the unnamed protagonists friends, rather than the protagonist himself. I think the novel would be much better categorised as a bildungsroman.

So while it didn’t answer my question about the style of Künstlerroman it did teach me about fine writing. White has woven some really delicate expressions into many of the pages. He creates an image through personification and turning descriptive assumptions on their head. There is a  strong sense of place and atmosphere with descriptions like, ‘a senile radio would be muttering to itself,’ (p3) and ‘I remember running with him down the street one grey winter afternoon when the sun, discouraged by a cold reception, had withdrawn.’ (p28) One of my favourites is ‘In Evanston I stood in the old bay window and looked out at Lake Michigan beating itself up.’ (p29) And ‘ On the floor a bum, reeking of sweet red wine, is sleeping it off, snoring loudly, a sound that draws a red line under the conspicuous silence.’ (p143)

There is also a wonderful sense of how the narrator sees the world:

 ‘The streets had been cleared, traffic lights lidded in snow burned like mad eyes, Christmas shoppers submitted to their forced labour, there were other cars cruising around as old and as dirty as ours, everyone seemed busy and indifferent – the rich anonymity of the city.’(12)

Then summer:

 ‘On this hot July night the streets were thronged with people. Here a crowd circled a sidewalk artist sketching a solemn young man with waved hair and spotty skin. The sitter was posing as though his profile were about to go on the coin of the realm. He was the only one who could not see how the sketch was coming along, this disappointment being patiently prepared for him.’ (133)

I love this last image of disappointment being patiently prepared, a larger metaphor life in some ways with tragic/comedic elements.

Edumund White The Beautiful Room is Empty, Picador 1988.