Books

Melina Marchetta
The Place on Dalhousie

Melina Marchetta’s latest novel opens in a downpour lasting “forty days and forty nights”, establishing a sense of providence that runs through The Place on Dalhousie. While a rural town floods with sorrow, blow-ins Rosie Gennaro and Jimmy Hailler have a fling, bonding over their own sadness: Rosie “loves broken people who damage her in return”.

Two years later, with a “flood baby” in tow, Rosie returns to her childhood home in Sydney’s inner west, where the pain she fled imbues every recycled floorboard and salvaged tile. Rosie’s late father, Seb, a Sicilian migrant, lovingly rebuilt a dump into his family’s castle. After Rosie’s mother died and Seb shacked up with Martha, Rosie’s happy memories jostled with resentment and grief.

As the Gennaros compete for space with “a big bloody ghost. As big as that house”, Jimmy reappears. After four generations of Hailler dysfunction, he has returned to Sydney, determined to break the cycle for his son.

The past is everywhere in Haberfield – in snatches of dialect overheard in the delis, and overbearing neighbours who remind Rosie of her parents’ absence. Marchetta knows these streets intimately, vividly rendering the “garden suburb” that postwar Italian migrants made into a community.

Shifting between Jimmy’s, Rosie’s and Martha’s perspectives, The Place on Dalhousie is an intergenerational saga about loss – of family, trust and relationships – and the support networks that put these “broken people” back together: the mother’s-group rejects who befriend Rosie; the childhood netball team that reunites to wrench Martha out of her isolation; the high-school gang that refuses to let Jimmy drift too far away. For all the characters’ suffering, Marchetta writes with disarming wit and levity, showing a skill for banter and self-aware angst.

Fans of Marchetta’s 1992 debut, Looking for Alibrandi, are all grown up, and her characters are too – Jimmy first appeared in Marchetta’s second YA novel, Saving Francesca, and returned in 2010’s The Piper’s Son, which straddled the YA–literary fiction divide. Marchetta cleaves to nostalgia and serendipity in a manner that is more admissible in adolescent literature, but she also retains those formative reading experiences’ pure pleasures: page-turning compulsion, cathartic sentimentality and the satisfaction of hopeful endings so rarely bestowed in the adult world.

Rebecca Harkins-Cross

Viking, 288pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 13, 2019 as "Melina Marchetta, The Place on Dalhousie". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: Rebecca Harkins-Cross