Kristina Olsson’s novel about the construction of the Sydney Opera House is an appropriate book to launch Scribner Australia, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. The book is gorgeously designed, with elegant endpapers, a gleaming dust jacket and stylish layout: a declaration that serious literary fiction is worth being serious about. And it’s appropriate because Olsson’s novel – whatever its flaws – is eloquent about bringing new complex things into the world and about how grand aesthetic enterprises can sometimes catalyse broader change, inspiring great dreams and heightened sophistications.
The year is 1965 and Axel Lindquist, a Swedish sculptor who works in glass, has been commissioned by the great architect Jørn Utzon to create a centrepiece for his Opera House. Lindquist is a devoted fan of the Danish master and thrills to the sight of those great white sails arcing over the harbour. But when he arrives in Australia, he realises instantly that the tide of public opinion has turned against Utzon and his vision for Bennelong Point.
Then there’s Pearl Keogh, a plucky journalist who’s been kicked off the state politics beat by her editor because she’s an anti-war activist. These days she languishes on the women’s pages, writing about how long the skirts are at Randwick and hating it. But she shares Axel’s enthusiasm for the new Opera House and the two hit it off when they meet.
There are wonders of evocation in this book. It’s full of lyrical details that stir physical memories and visceral sympathies. When Axel hits the surf at Manly Beach, he feels for the first time the “muscle of the water holding him”. Pearl just as vividly suppresses by instinct “a laugh that bulged in her throat” during an interview with a famously prickly author with shades of Christina Stead.
Olsson has the painter’s trick of composing scenes with vibratory flashes of colour, such as the burning red of a bottlebrush or the raw blue of a morning sky: sensuous glimpses of Sydney’s beauty. There are plenty of fine effects where light leaps and tumbles through city streets, where it dances on water and colours the air. And her poetic tributes to the Opera House are particularly strong. In one passage she likens the rising lines of the roof shells – unforgettably – to cupped hands poised in prayer.
Yes, there’s a lot that is elegant and full of gleaming suggestion in Olsson’s Shell, but the realism of the world she creates is a bit fragile. Whenever there’s narrative pressure, whenever there’s the necessity for action and movement, it all threatens to shatter like one of Axel’s sculptures. The novel’s climax – with thunder and mysterious explosions and a headlong dash across the city – is particularly confusing.
And there are all sorts of things that don’t quite hang together. There’s Pearl’s obsession with tracing the whereabouts of her two brothers. After their mother died, the boys were sent to boarding school. They hated it and soon ran off north. That was five years ago. They still send the odd postcard and seem to be all right. But Pearl, a self-styled surrogate mother, carries on as if they’d been snatched from their strollers or taken with the Beaumont children. Now that Menzies has reintroduced national service, which will soon lead to conscription, she’s terrified that she’ll lose them to the war. But it’s an obsession that never registers as plausible. And must Pearl have an affair with the editor of her paper? Surely we’ve had enough female journalists falling into bed with their bosses?
But, still, there are countless flashy beauties in this book. There are descriptions of the sea and the sky and the streets of Sydney that dazzle and shine. And the transformative power of beauty is a dominant theme because the experience of beauty, Olsson suggests, can transfigure and metamorphose an entire people. As Pearl says:
If you were born to the dailiness of the Eiffel Tower, the elegance of its leap, it would surely pierce your dreams, inform your earthly desires. Your ambition. Slipping silently beneath your young skin so you didn’t realise, not then, what had made you.
She speculates that unlovely streets must make unlovely people and that the beautiful lines and curves of the Opera House will change Australia’s way of seeing and awaken the nation to the sense of infinite possibilities of the imagination. In this sense, Shell is a fictional dramatisation of Les Murray’s remark that, with the Opera House, Sydney starts to think of itself as a great city.
For Axel, a reflective aesthete, beauty enables you to see not only what is potential but also what is actual. It allows you to see deeper into what’s there. So, the Opera House allows him to imagine pre-settlement Australia. He can see the old lives and the old ways still there under the paved streets and sprawling suburbs: a city that runs beneath the city that is. He wonders if Utzon’s design might constitute a kind of treaty. For Axel the Opera House is like a first step towards decolonisation. Controversial? Well, he hasn’t been in the country long.
Yes, as a vast sculptural monument the Opera House is an iconic masterpiece, but it’s worth remembering that the building was left deficient as a set of performing arts spaces. Conductors have been frustrated by the inadequacy of the orchestra pit in the concert hall and there’s no stage large enough for The Ring or Aida.
Of course, a book is not an opera house and any comparison between the interior of the Opera House and the weakness of this beautifully designed book is invidious. Shell immerses us in a sensuous apprehension of the building and its relationship with one of the most picturesque harbours in the world. But the fictional drama elaborated around this icon is rather less impressive, less convincing. This is a story of possibilities and sensations, where none of the characters seem quite real, and in which the story is a bit like a dream that never gets a narrative strong enough to compel. JR
Scribner, 384pp, $35
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 29, 2018 as "Kristina Olsson, Shell". Subscribe here.