My review of Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Adelaide appeared in the Weekend Australian, 1-2 October 2011. I can also report that my mum, who has lived in Adelaide for more years than I have, is currently reading my copy and is loving it. Mum and I both recommend buying and reading Adelaide. If you live outside of South Australia, storm your local bookshop (if it hasn’t already closed down under the Kindle crush) and demand that they order in enough copies in to make a nice pile of them on the new release table. You can find out more about Adelaide at the NewSouth Publishers webpage, here. Here’s my review, with thanks to Stephen Romei and The Weekend Australian.
IN the mid-1990s, to the delight of randy teenagers and the bemusement of everybody else, the South Australian government came up with a new state slogan. Double meanings aside, “Going all the way” inadvertently captured the capacity of Adelaideans to hover mid-point between boastfulness and embarrassment about their city.
Kerryn Goldsworthy’s Adelaide more knowingly encapsulates the endearing and frustrating elements of the city’s equivocal spirit, although the author reveals herself as a true local by occasionally lapsing into it.
This is the fifth volume in New South’s City Series, in which well-known writers reflect on their home town, and follows Peter Timms’s Hobart, Matthew Condon’s Brisbane, Delia Falconer’s Sydney and Sophie Cunningam’s Melbourne. Books on Perth, Darwin and Canberra will follow next year.
The qualities that give this latest instalment a somewhat formulaic feel — it is personal, personable, literary and brief — are also its strengths. Goldsworthy is a neat fit for the project because she takes context seriously; she has calloused research hands and she takes as much pleasure in the dirt as in the treasure she digs up. She is also emblematic of the many young Adelaideans who flee the edge in search of the centre (Melbourne, Sydney, London) but who, weeks, years or decades later, come home.
Goldsworthy writes that “there are as many Adelaides as there are people who have stood and looked, and listened, and remembered”. Because the story of even a small city is a huge topic, she uses what she calls a “museum of memory, one whose exhibits conjure up, in widening ripples of association, a whole city”.
She chooses nine objects (a map, a photograph, a concert ticket and so on) and makes each one the starting motif for a chapter. This allows her to drift from colonial times to the present, from Balfours Frog Cakes to Don Dunstan’s pink shorts, in fluid fashion, in a way that genuinely connects eras. She interrogates with vigour and wit some of Adelaide’s contradictions, myths, icons and stereotypes, and she nails a fundamental truth:
It seems a town that makes no real allowances for divergence or excess, for irregularity, for ambiguity, for confusion or uncertainty of dissent.
The standout chapter is A Bucket of Peaches. Goldsworthy recalls that after her grandparents retired from their farm and moved to Adelaide in the 1950s, her grandfather planted fruit trees in the back yard. She meditates on his lifelong pursuit of “growing things that turned gold when summer came” and reminds us that barter was once normal in suburbia.
It’s lovely storytelling but it also has backbone: Goldsworthy concludes that her grandfather did not exchange his fruit but gave it away, which leads her to reflect on 1950s Adelaide as a place of abundance where, paradoxically, many families could not afford to feed their children fruit.
Onwards the peach-driven narrative pushes, to Thomas Playford, who was premier for an astonishing period (1938 to 1965), to Goldsworthy’s own back yard and other back yards remembered from childhood, to the rhythm of the seasons and, finally, to dry and dusty Adelaide summers. Anybody who has endured a 21st-century Adelaide heatwave will know why Goldsworthy asks: “How hot does a lizard have to get before it boils itself and implodes?”
The rest of the book succeeds in a slightly more partial and periodic way. For example, Goldsworthy’s chapter on Charles Hill’s painting ‘The Proclamation of South Australia 1836’ seems cramped for room. Because Hill began the painting 20 years after the event he depicted, it is historically important but inaccurate.
Goldsworthy uses this duality to launch a wide-ranging discussion about the theory and (very different) practice of systematic colonisation, including the “dramas, quarrels, sulks, bruised egos, wars of attrition, and in one case a fist-fight” that occupied the attention of the colony’s most important men.
The chapter also contains a lively portrait of one rarely discussed and tragic figure, Robert Gouger. Overall, though, Goldsworthy juggles so many ideas, events and people that her observations feel summarised and her conclusions unstable.
Elsewhere, Goldsworthy uses Colonel William Light’s statue to good effect to probe the complexities behind his “Adelaide folk hero” status as the city’s founder and surveyor. But this chapter also gets bogged down in statue-gazing. For example, while Goldsworthy writes insightfully that the statue of legal figure Roma Mitchell “has a quality of stillness that is paradoxically full of life”, I wanted to know more about Mitchell herself (even if that meant knowing less about North Terrace’s statues). And when Goldsworthy imagines the statues of Light and Queen Victoria engaging in conversation, “a mile of hot blue Adelaide air between them”, it is one of the few times she strains in search of meaning.
Goldsworthy confronts Adelaide’s reputation for weird murders by using a photograph of the three Beaumont children, who famously disappeared from Glenelg Beach in 1966. She also uses her own Glenelg experience to frame the discussion, remembering the time — she was 12, and it was a month before the Beaumonts disappeared — that a male stranger fondled her.
While Goldsworthy doesn’t make too much of this startling coincidence, it does gives a piercing realness to her discussion of various Adelaide murders by reminding us that the victims were people, not headlines.
But Goldsworthy also eschews an opportunity to reflect on Adelaide’s collective response to the recent “bodies in the barrels” killings, which tended towards disgust and/or titillation at the gratuitous facts combined with an enthusiastic averting of the gaze regarding what it might all mean.
It’s an understandable omission but it’s also a pity because throughout Adelaide Goldsworthy frequently demonstrates an ability, in a few adroit sentences, to offer fresh insights into complex issues.
Other omissions jar, too. For example, Australian football’s only appearance is cursory and dismissive. Goldsworthy is probably right that “the whole AFL culture is a psychoanalyst’s paradise” but footy has been such an intimate part of Adelaide’s culture since the 1870s that its absence here leaves a gaping hole.
But this sort of book is bound to provoke disagreement. I found myself delighted by Goldsworthy’s narrative yet desperate to change everything about it so that is became my Adelaide rather than hers. Adelaide is a conversation starter but, in defiance of its brevity, it is also erudite and weighty, and accessible to readers familiar with Adelaide and to those who are only dimly aware of the big country town that sits between Sydney and Perth.