Two Weeks With The Queen by Morris Gleitzman Novel Study

Two Weeks With The Queen is an Australian middle grade novel by Morris Gleitzman. My edition is copyrighted 1989, though other places on the web will tell you this book was first published in 1990 or 1991.

I was in Year Seven in 1989. Fast forward to 2021 and my own Year Seven kid is studying this book in their first year of high school. Fair to say, this is a story with longevity.

My kid proudly announced to their English teacher, “This is the first book I’ve read on my own without pictures!” Um, this is true, despite the many, many books in our house, and nothing to be proud of when you’re almost 13, still doggedly attached to graphic novels and comic books, repelled by walls of text. I was wondering which book-without-pictures would crack the seal for my stubborn reader. Well, this is the one that did it. Kudos to Morris Gleitzman.

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The Home Girls by Olga Masters

William Frederick Yeames - For the Poor

“The Home Girls” is a short story by Australian writer Olga Masters (1919 – 1986), and the first story of Masters’ 1982 collection, also called The Home Girls. I’m interested in Olga Masters partly because her fiction wasn’t published until she was in her 50s. Then, when she was published, she won a bunch of awards. The Home Girls won a National Book Council Award in 1983.

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My Shadow Is Pink by Scott Stuart

My Shadow Is Pink is a rhyming picture book by Australian author/illustrator Scott Stuart, perfect for Rainbow Storytime, or at any time in fact.

I’d encourage readers to compare and contrast this book with The Day The Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers. The Crayons picture book is a mega bestseller, and I am therefore happy to hold it up as an example of gender messaging done badly, by creators (and publishers, and marketing teams) who clearly didn’t know what they were doing in the gender identity arena. Unfortunately, the creative team of The DayThe Crayons Quit do try to smash links between colour and gender… then end up reinforcing them. I’ll be generous and say it was by accident. I’ll be extra generous and point out that The Crayons (2016) is quite old now, in this rapidly changing aspect of culture.

In contrast, the creator of My Shadow Is Pink (2020) has secondary experience of gender expansiveness, observed in his own son. Stuart successfully achieves what others have tried and failed to do: to disentangle colour, clothing and play choices from gender. This is a vital first step in accepting variations on the gender binary.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF SHADOWS

Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 Theodor Kittelsen
Elves catching the Shadow Goblin 1908 by Theodor Kittelsen

The plot of My Shadow Is Pink makes use of the shadow as a separate part of oneself. Humans have long been thinking about the shadow and its motivations:

FOLLOW a shadow, it still flies you;
⁠Seem to fly it, it will pursue:
So court a mistress, she denies you;
⁠Let her alone, she will court you.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

At morn and even, shades are longest;
⁠At noon they are or short or none:
So men at weakest, they are strongest,
⁠But grant us perfect, they’re not known.
⁠Say, are not women truly, then,
⁠Styled but the shadows of us men?

The Shadow by Ben Johnson (from the Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900)
Bring your lovelies out of the shadow, Woman and Home, May 1958
“Bring your lovelies out of the shadow”, Woman and Home, May 1958. Here, the shadow as separate entity is utilised in a humorous way by advertisers. But it does remind me of the current problematic marketing campaign being carried out by the British NHS, encouring women in a cutesy way to suddenly not have shame (around pubic hair and cervical test attendance), when everything else in the culture shames women for what’s under women’s clothes.
THE SHADOW IN THE HERO

In some cultures across history, the shadow-as-separate-being is an ancient and surprisingly fleshed-out idea. Though few of us these days give much thought to the shadow we cast, the idea of The Shadow In The Hero is well-known among writers. In The Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell wrote about various character archetypes in the mythic story. The ‘Shadow’ is the opponent, and represents the dark weakness in the hero, hence “Shadow In The Hero”. When heroes battle their opponents outwardly, they are actually battling their inner demons. Inner demons are the scariest demons of all.

Frank Cadogan Cowper - Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
Frank Cadogan Cowper – Fair Rosamund and Queen Eleanor 1920
THE HORROR SHADOW

Shadows, like personal weaknesses, are inherently scary. Film noir makes the most of this, but shadows are utilised in every genre. Chris Van Allsburg utilises shadows to ominous effect in his picture books, notably in The Garden of Abdul Asazi.

Filmmakers frequently use shadows because the human imagination conjures up what is most terrifying to each person. This is an intelligent method because if they had to create a monster, they would be isolating the audience that isn’t scared by that monster. It is a simple, yet high effective way to evoke fear.

“Shadows in Horror Films: Fear of the Unknown,” Brogan O’Callaghan (2017)

Because the shadow has an inherent scariness, the idea of this scariness transfers into a picture book and allows the author to leave most of the scary incidents off the page. In My Shadow Is Pink, it’s important to leave the worst things off the page, for the same reason the creators of Schitt’s Creek avoided homophobia in their show. There are too few stories celebrating gender difference without the trauma. However, exposing the most secret and unusual part of yourself is always scary. To use the metaphor of a shadow is an excellent way of conveying the scariness while avoiding the trauma.

SHADOWS IN ANCIENT EGYPT

Now to the concept of the coloured shadow. This is based on a very old, religious or supernatural idea: That your shadow is a part of you.

We see it in Ancient Egyptian culture. First, the Ancient Egyptians believed the soul comprised five separate parts:

  • The Ren: the name given to a person at birth. Egyptians believed it would live for as long as that name was spoken or the person remembered.
  • The Sheut: the person’s shadow or silhouette. Egyptians believed that the shadow contained part of the essence of the person.
  • The Ib: a metaphysical heart. To ancient Egyptians it was the focus of emotion, thought, will and intention. They understood it as the seat for the soul.
  • The Ba: personality. Everything that makes a person themselves.
  • The Ka: the vital fire or spark which distinguishes living people from dead (makes sense: warm living bodies vs. cold dead bodies).

A person’s shadow or silhouette, šwt (sheut), is always present. Because of this, Egyptians surmised that a shadow contains something of the person it represents. Through this association, statues of people and deities were sometimes referred to as shadows.

The shadow was … representative to Egyptians of a figure of death, or servant of Anubis, and was depicted graphically as a small human figure painted completely black. In some cases the šwt represented the impact a person had on the earth. Sometimes people (usually pharaohs) had a shadow box in which part of their šwt was stored.

Wikipedia

I heard Jodi Picoult speak succinctly about the Ancient Egyptians and souls in a Radio New Zealand interview she did promoting her new novel, The Book Of Two Ways.

John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910
John Bauer, (1882-1918), was a Swedish artist and illustrator, mainly of Scandinavian fairytales. The Prince Without A Shadow 1910.
SHADOW WORK

In psychology and spirituality, “shadow work” is the practice of investigating parts of ourselves that we’d normally keep hidden. This often involves looking at what we perceive as our “negative,” “unattractive,” or “undesirable” impulses and traits. Shadow work is a concept popularised by Carl Jung.

Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is. At all counts, it forms an unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions.

Psychology and religion: West and East (ed. 1958), Carl Jung

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY SHADOW IS PINK

PARATEXT

My Shadow is Pink is a beautifully written rhyming story that touches on the subjects of gender identity, self acceptance, equality and diversity.

MARKETING COPY

SHORTCOMING

We all need to feel a part of something. When we feel different from our tribe, peer group or family, that can be a problem. “I cannot fit in when my shadow stands out.”

What I like about the set up of this story: The father is coded as ‘blue’, which contemporary readers will associate with ‘boys’. But then the entire family tree is described as blue. Since families don’t exist without women in them somewhere, this is a nice touch.

That said, I’d have liked to see some photos of women in the wall, to cement the idea that blue (the colour) is not a gender. (Later in the story, the father does bring out the photo album ‘of parents and brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and others.) I wonder if there is a narrative reason why no women appear on the opening spread: Before his character arc, his misogyny means he dismisses and invisibilises women? By the way, there is no mother in this story, adding to the corpus of children’s stories with absent mothers. It’s interesting to think about why the mother may have been left out of this one.

DESIRE

At a plot level, the child wants to wear a dress to school despite being assigned male at birth.

At a psychological level, the child wants to both be themselves and also to “fit in”.

OPPONENT

There exist two distinct ways of fitting in. You can either pretend to be like everyone else, or everyone else can accept you for who you are. This particular story starts off with the father hoping to go down the first route. The father assures his child that this is “just a phase”.

Therefore, the child and the child’s father are in opposition. The father’s attitude is the dominant one in society. But it is impossible to repress that part of yourself which is elemental. In that story, this elemental part of the self is represented by the shadow.

PLAN

The child is too young to concoct plans and whatnot, but the five- or six-year-old version of a plan goes like this: I like to wear dresses, I will wear a dress to school.

THE BIG STRUGGLE

As is the case in many picture books, the battle comprises most of the story. We see the child looking sad and scared as they go out into the world (starting school) as a boy-coded kid in a dress.

To reiterate, I like that there’s no on-the-page insulting or bullying in this book. Sometimes parents are more fearful than they need to be, especially when it comes to Gen Z kids, who are the most accepting generation we’ve seen in memorable history. (Yes, you can thank their parents for that, and also probably ubiquity of the Internet.)

At the climax of My Shadow Is Pink, the child throws off the dress, determined never to wear it again. (We can assume bad things happened off the page.)

In the picture, the shadow is now separated from the child’s body; an abject rejection.

The word ‘abject’ is key here. This story is about abjection in Julia Kristeva’s sense of the word, explained in her 1980 work Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection.

ANAGNORISIS

The (hoped-for) revelation to the reader: If a big, manly man like this kid’s dad can wear a dress, then dresses, pageantry, kikis and all forms of camp expression are not the same thing as gender identity and sexual orientation. Ergo, pageantry should be for everyone.

Camp: A preference for reversal and rejection of sincerity….camp involves both a sense of doubleness — things are not merely what they seem to the naive viewer … camp involves  a preference for reversal — the very bad now reinterpreted as good.

The double page spread which happens at this point in the story, with the spot illustrations of various people with various shadows is what makes this story shine. Until this point, the author/illustrator has had little choice but to run with the culturally dominant view that blue is connected to masculinity and pink is connected to femininity. At this point he subverts it, successfully with:

  • A masculo- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (businessman and painting)
  • A femme- coded character with a cis-coloured shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (fixing cars and cheerleading)
  • A masculo- coded character with a masculo-coded shadow and a dual masculo-femme coded activity (weight-lifting and dancing)

The message on the verso is clear: Cis people don’t need to limit their passions in order to prove to the world that they’re cis.

On the recto side of the page we have another two examples, and in the mix:

  • A cis girl who likes girls

Until this point, the story has been about gender expression, and possibly about gender identity. Now the story sneaks in some gay acceptance, which is very nicely done.

ON OFF-THE-PAGE CHARACTER ARCS

This is an example of a story in which the parent has the character arc, not the kid. The kid was always fine. The father started out scared of his kid’s identity, then morphs into the perfect, supportive parent.

I’ve started to notice something about stories structured in this way:

The first is that they do work. There’s something really heartwarming about seeing a burly father change. This conects to my theory about heartwarming stories about kindness: The less kind the character in the first place, the more heartwarming an audience will find their change of attitude. We absolutely crave stories about characters who ‘come good’. The bigger the character arc, the better we like it.

Here’s the strange thing: In such stories, the storyteller is under zero obligation to show why the unkind character changed their mind. We simply would not accept this if the father of this story were the focalising character. We’d go, hang on, why the sudden change of heart?

This is a feature of all forms of storytelling, not just of children’s picture books. Another example can be found in episode one of the TV series Lovecraft Country. A woman is required to stay at home for safety while her husband goes off on a trip to write a guide book for Black travellers. It is established at the beginning of the story that it is the wife who does a lot of the work of writing. She asks, “Why can’t I go with you?” Because safety, explains the husband, who ends up taking another woman along with him — a woman who nearly loses her life. But as episode one closes, we see the husband pick up the phone from a hotel room and tell his wife that she should join him next time. We haven’t been shown why he has had a change of heart.

So why does this work? Why do readers simply accept the father’s off-stage character arc without asking, “why”? I posit two reasons:

  1. The character arc happens off-stage. We therefore assume things have been ticking over with the dad — things we simply don’t know about. Maybe he’s been on the Internet reading up about LGBTQI+ issues. Maybe someone’s had a quiet word with him. Maybe he remembered a time in his own youth when he wore a dress and got teased and realises now that this was wrong… Any number of things could’ve happened, but the reader doesn’t need to know about them.
  2. We were always on the less empowered character’s side, right from the get-go. In My Shadow Is Pink we don’t need reasons for the dad’s character change explicated, because it was obvious from the start that the father was in the wrong, the kid was in the right, so it was a natural progression that the father would join us all on the right side, ie. the side of the viewpoint character. In Lovecraft Country, a modern audience with modern views on gender equality will be on the side of the wife who is required to stay at home despite doing the bulk of the writing work. This is why we accept character arcs when they happen from ‘wrong’ to ‘correct’ even when we don’t see the thing that spurred the shift in thinking. Whenever someone agrees with us in real life, we don’t need to know why, right? We only need to know their thought processes when they disagree.

In any case, here is a real world father who underwent the same character arc as this fictional father, explaining his epiphany:

“And that was when it hit me. My daughter was equating being good with being someone else.” This is a real world example of an epiphany about a mask. So many fictional stories are also about the removal of a mask.

NEW SITUATION

The advice this father gives to his child: “stand up with your shadow and yell THIS IS ME!” If the advice ended there, I’d criticise it for being insufficiently nuanced. But this is followed with “And some they will love you… and some they will not.. But those that do love you, they’ll love you a lot”.

This is the perfect way to end a book about gender identity in a world where trans rights are clearly still very much needing to be fought for.

EXTRAPOLATED ENDING

Although this story is specifically about the acceptance of gender non-conformity, the message has a wider application: We must all accept ourselves, no matter who we are. It’s great to see a specifically gender non-conformity example added to what is already a massive corpus of ‘Be Yourself’ picture books of the non-controversial Elmer variety, about a fantasy elephant with patchwork skin.

RESONANCE

I hope that one day, a picture book such as My Shadow is Pink becomes wholly unnecessary, considered a strange artefact from a bigoted past. But for now, affirming stories such as My Shadow Is Pink are sorely needed, and I’m delighted that this one exists.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Home » Australia

Which novels are Australian high school English students studying?

This list is collected from online chats about children’s books. Comments are from teachers who have used these books in class in 2020.

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

American. Teachers are having huge success with Years 9 and 10.

Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter moves between two worlds: the poor neighborhood where she lives and the fancy suburban prep school she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is shattered when Starr witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend Khalil at the hands of a police officer. Khalil was unarmed.

Soon afterward, his death is a national headline. Some are calling him a thug, maybe even a drug dealer and a gangbanger. Protesters are taking to the streets in Khalil’s name. Some cops and the local drug lord try to intimidate Starr and her family. What everyone wants to know is: what really went down that night? And the only person alive who can answer that is Starr.

But what Starr does or does not say could upend her community. It could also endanger her life.

Continue reading “Which novels are Australian high school English students studying?”

John Brown, Rose and The Midnight Cat (1979)

Akseli-Gallen-Kallela-Illustration-for-Kalevala-Lemminkäinens-Mother-1897-death-swan-sickness

John Brown and the Midnight Cat is a classic Australian picture book written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks. This story is an excellent example of how a story for children can mean something completely different — and disturbing — for adults. This children’s story gives me chills.

As you read, pay special attention to the pictures in this one, which tell a very different story. Recall everything you’ve ever absorbed about universal symbols. Pay attention also to the way vertical lines and framing is used to separate character from each other, also separating inside from outside.

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Dead Calm Film Study

Dead Calm movie poster landscape

Sometimes horror movies are even more terrifying when read metaphorically. In Dead Calm, the story of a husband and wife at sea with a murderous intruder is bad enough, but what if the murderer doesn’t exist?

Dead Calm is a well-executed but outdated psychological horror, adapted in 1989 for film from a 1963 novel by the same name by America Charles K. Williams (1909 – 1975).

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Bluey Australian TV Show Storytelling

Bluey Family

Remember that time an episode of British cartoon Peppa Pig was taken off air in Australia? It was the episode which taught kids that spiders aren’t scary. Not a lesson Aussie kids need to learn.

Well, fast forward a few years and Australian kids now have their own cartoon series reminiscent of Peppa Pig. Bluey is made at Ludo Studio in Brisbane. There are currently about 60 people working on the show.

I no longer have a little kid in the house, but we both checked out Bluey on ABC iView, because a Twitter friend recommended it thusly: https://twitter.com/DevinMadson/status/1219892040718176257

Bluey is getting a 9.5/10 rating on IMDb and was nominated for an Emmy. Bluey is marvellous.

First, why does Bluey remind me of Peppa Pig? The nuclear family set-up is similar. Instead of pigs the family are dogs. Bluey is an Australian blue heeler, making this a specifically Australian show, but not so Australian that the series won’t garner an international audience. (Bluey could be any dog, because she is first and foremost a kid… a human child in an animal’s body.)

Turns out the Peppa Pig comparison is no coincidence. I subsequently learned Joe Brumm set out to make an Australian Peppa Pig.

The art style is similar. Look at how both shows deal with aerial perspective (hint: It’s in the colour of the outlines.)

Foregrounded characters have dark outlines. Background scenery is coloured in high key and outlined in a darker hue of the object fill.
Peppa Pig characters and backgrounds are a little more simple.

But the colour palette of Bluey is more appealing than that of Peppa Pig, and I wonder if Luke Pearson’s Hilda has been an influence.

A scene from TV cartoon series Hilda
A highly detailed scene from Bluey
A more typically detailed scene from Bluey

Child Development

Bingo and Bluey are 4 and 6 years old, the ‘social emotional developmental phase’, as described by Joe Blumm. He really likes this age because the kids are learning not so egocentric anymore. They want to play imaginative games but that involves other kids also having their input. The games temper their egocentricity. They need persistence to stay in those roles. The show is for that age. There’s no reading or anything like that, aimed at a more abstract age.

Blumm does not believe that kids are little adults. He wanted to create a show specifically for 4-6 year olds. His interest in psychology has clearly influenced his character development.

Family Life Realism

Another comparison is Olivia the Pig, but Bluey leaves Olivia in the dust. Bluey is clearly the brain child of people who know parenting and know kids. Ian Falconer (who wrote the original Olivia picture books) is not a parent himself and this shows in stories such as Olivia and the Missing Toy, in which I want to break the fourth wall and slap the pig parents. The actions of Olivia’s parents make no sense regarding Olivia’s character arc. In Bluey, the influence of good parenting has a direct effect on the child characters. This is realism.

Although the TV adaptation of Olivia no doubt included many parents on staff, to me it never ever reached the level of parenting realism achieved in Bluey, because the source material was lacking. Or maybe my perception of the Olivia series is partly coloured by the fact I’m not a rich New York parent. Perhaps the very Australian-ness of Bluey makes it feel like a more realistic portrayal of parenting to me (currently modern parenting in Australia).

But it’s more than that. Joe Brumm has two daughters, and the producer’s got two daughters and both his brothers have got two daughters. If you’re asking, “Why is Bluey a girl?” there’s your answer. But does the question really need to be asked? Why is it still so unusual to see a girl character without a massive pink bow telegraphing her gender smacked on top of her head?

What else makes Bluey feel ‘real’? (Code for ‘relatable’)

Integration of technology into family life

When Bluey wants to talk to her grandmother she simply calls up on the tablet. Granny doesn’t live in the same house, but she is only a call away. When Bluey and her father get back from the vet, distraught after finding a dying budgie, the mother is right there in the driveway waiting to offer comfort. It is clear that the father has called in advance to tell the mother what’s happened. This is how families are using technology.

In some ways story craft has become more difficult because of technology. How to put your fictional kids in real peril when parents are one phone call away? These kids are still too young to realistically carry mobiles, so there’s that. But my point here is that technology has also made story craft easier in some ways. The writers don’t need to show a retelling of the story to the mother, and no one would ask how she already knows.

MODERN PARENT-CHILD INTERACTIONS

Compare this show to any show from 15 years ago and you won’t find parents as realistically active and involved as these ones are. The parents in Bluey exist on the same hierarchy as the kids, but not in a way that subverts, in a carnivalesque way.

There is a long, long history of dispatching with parents in children’s stories but for modern kids, this won’t ring true. About half of the Bluey episodes include parents in the puppies’ imaginative play. I believe these are the best episodes, and my 11-year-old agreed. By including parents in the play, the writers are able to model more adult-like emotional literacy, and this show is very much about emotional literacy.

How do you apologise to someone (after leaving them out of a game)? How do you cope with being factually incorrect (about Grannies and flossing)? The parents are there to nudge the kids in the right direction.

Like any modern kids’ story, the lessons in Bluey are not taught overtly by the adults. The child characters receive prompting after being allowed to experience hard feelings on their own. At no point are they told that their bad feelings aren’t okay. It’s okay to be in a funk for the entire session at preschool. It’s okay to run out on a game if you need some time alone.

I was initially a little disappointed that it seemed the father constantly having fun with the kids (Mother as Female Maturity Formula, Dad as Doofus Fun Guy). But a few episodes in, the mother is shown participating in one of the kids’ games. Moreover:

  • Both mother and father make the bed, together (even though the mother is gently admonishing the father for some housework matter that supposedly didn’t happen yesterday)
  • The mother isn’t busy cooking dinner and waiting on the family while the dad has fun, like we often see in older stories. In the pilot episode of Bluey the mother is out at a baby shower (supposedly a fun social outing for her) while the rest of the family stay home and have fun of their own.
THE KIDS FEEL LIKE REAL KIDS

Bluey’s puppy characters are voiced by children, and these kids don’t sound like they came out of London’s most expensive elocution school. I don’t know how they did it, but it sounds naturalistic.

That said, it’s more than voice acting that achieves the sense that these puppies are ‘real kids’.

On Northrop Frye’s scale of mimetic heroes, the puppies are low-mimetic. They’re not tricksters. For example, one morning Bluey wakes up her father one morning and mimics everything he says and does. Eventually the father says, “My name is Bluey and I smell like a monkey’s butt!” Bluey isn’t savvy enough to NOT fall for that one, and the father good-naturedly ‘wins’. Fathers do tend to win these sorts of games, because fathers have been around longer.

Humour of Bluey

When looking at humour in kids’ shows I like to use taxonomy from the creator of The Onion.

LANGUAGE HUMOUR

There’s plenty of language humour in Bluey, with words specific to the show. These examples of familect (I’m guessing from the creator himself) are likely to become part of the wider cultural lexicon, much like ‘Yoink!’ and ‘Eat my shorts!’ from The Simpsons. https://twitter.com/ariannaoliver_/status/1190978865767862278?s=20

A lot of the jokes on this show are funny because they are relatable family moments. Family moments might be given its own terminology e.g. ‘a tactical wee’. Giving something ordinary a name is funny in its own right.

CHARACTER HUMOUR
IRONY

In “Copycat”, Bluey’s father observes she has finally stopped copying everything he says. Ironically, Bluey has learned how to deal with grief over a dead budgie and has been channelling him exactly in her make-believe game in which her younger sister refuses to die like the budgie did.

PHYSICAL COMEDY

This medium lets creators play with an unlimited amount of cartoon violence but Bluey is restrained in that regard. Instead we enjoy physical comedy such as slipping on a can of beans or watching grandparents attempt the flossing dance move, and failing.

In episode one, the father has been twisting his daughter in rope swings, about to release her. When she asks him how babies get into their mothers’ bellies, he releases her for the spin to avoid answering the question.

If you like Bluey…

… and you are an adult viewer, check out We Bare Bears. This show is more squarely for an older audience, though I’m sure younger kids would be intrigued by it. The pace of talking will be too face for the 4-6 age group.

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Home » Australia

The Lap Pool by Robert Drewe

ponies

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in his 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach and its centrality in the lives of many Australians. But this story is about man’s relationship to a different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight, except that he has moved away from it.

In this story the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him off at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting, symbolically and metaphorically fascinating in its own right.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s sympathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we tend to empathise, even if that character is truly terrible. In that case, a death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end? I remained detached from Leon and I’m pretty sure I groaned at the end but “The Lap Pool” is still a masterful work of short fiction.

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas with romantic notions. These naive townies fail to understand the harshness of the natural environment. They annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then the environment ends up punishing them severely. “The Lap Pool” is the Australian equivalent of a Proulx Wyoming tale.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This has the effect of widening a story’s lens, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

Camphor is mentioned again in the context of moth balls as Leon recalls a fur coat in a wardrobe after seeing a pony’s ragged rump.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. China Mason, another Asian reference which in the end has nothing to do with Asia. (China is a rhyming slang nick name.) Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way:

She took only about twenty seconds to scoop up the snake from the pool and snap the trap shut, and perhaps another minute to detach the trap from the pole and place it in the back of her van.

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story jumps the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe plunges us firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. As he dies, Leon shucks off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

“The Lap Pool” is a short story by Australian author Robert Drewe, and the opening story in the 2008 collection The Rip. Robert Drewe is known for writing about the beach, and its importance to the lives of many Australians, but this particular story is about man’s relationship to a very different body of water — a pool on a farm. The beach is nowhere in sight.

This is an example of a story in which the author paints a picture of a complicated, unsympathetic character and then kills him at the end, sort of like divine retribution, the modern equivalent of deus ex machina. (Another example is “Ithaca In My Mind” by Peter Temple.) These stories can feel pointless if the author isn’t careful, partly because killing a character at the end can feel like a cheap and easy way to stop writing. If you’re planning this category of story there must be another point to the narrative, because the plot in itself is not sophisticated.

For instance, the story might be a frame for a well-rendered evocation of a very interesting setting.

Or, the author might be testing the reader’s empathies, encouraging us to understand a character and therefore empathise as a human being. Whenever an author gives us a glimpse into the secret part of a character’s psyche we are primed to empathise, even if that person is truly terrible. In that case, the death at the end forces us to realise we actually didn’t mind this guy after all. Stories with this underlying structure can thereby make us question our problematic powers of empathy.

Who do you empathise with in this story? Did you feel a pang of sadness at the end?

STORY WORLD OF “THE LAP POOL”

In a slightly different universe the “The Lap Pool” might have been plotted by America’s Annie Proulx, who has written many short stories about rich city folk who move to rural areas, who fail to understand the harshness of the environment, annoy the real rural people with their dangerous ignorance and then end up punished by the environment itself. This is an Australian equivalent.

Some stories open with a wide angle view of a setting. We’re basically told the GPS coordinates (or a fictional version thereof). In this case Robert Drewe opens with a view of a pool, and only at the beginning of section two zooms out to ground the reader in place:

Lushly green, thanks to their prime position between the coast and the Nightcap Ranges, his thirty-two acres lay along a north-south valley of carved-up dairy farms, formerly dense rainforest known as the Big Scrub.

But by opening with a man in a pool, the story becomes more universal than if it were a man in a pool in a specific region of Australia. (We’ve previously been told about Sugar Cane road, though unless you look on a map you may not know where that is.)

‘Lushly green’ paints the farm as an Arcadian setting, though what follows corrects this view for the reader. This is a postlapsarian world. It goes without saying that the dilapidated farm is an outworking of Leon’s emotional state, but worth pointing out how an opening of ‘lushly green’ fools us into thinking this is a beautiful area. In the same way, Leon’s family, friends and acquaintances were ‘fooled’ into thinking Leon was some big shot successful guy, until proven otherwise six months back.

That’s how very closely Drewe ties his main character to the setting. It’s masterful.

As Annie Proulx is wont to do, Drewe goes some way towards positioning this landscape in human history. This widens a story’s field of view, universalising it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE LAP POOL”

SHORTCOMING

Leon K. is a first or second generation Australian with a clear Bucharest heritage. The lifelong impact of his non-whiteness is mostly left off the page but Drewe offers enough for us to deduce the quiet racism directed his way, and like various characters in The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, the dominant Australian culture may have taught him that in order to be afforded basic human respect he must make himself financially impressive.

… an urge to become a regular Australian, a suntanned sporting champion…

By middle age he has accumulated a lot of wealth, including a yacht and a ski lodge. As the story opens Leon is in the middle of court proceedings. Drewe drip feeds details of this situation across part one. It’s interesting to see how an author does that, and where he stops. We never find out exactly what crime Leon has committed — it’s enough to learn that he’s a white collar criminal and his impressive assets are (at least partly) partly ill-gotten.

CLUE ONE: His sixth month alone… [Why has he been alone for six months?]

CLUE TWO: Awaiting his trial… while the authorities strengthened their case against him [What has he done?]

CLUE THREE: By now all the official delays, court adjournments and tax investigations were jumbled together in his mind. [Ah, he’s being tried for tax fraud. This is in line with expectation — Drewe has just spent a paragraph painting him as a formerly rich, white-collar character who likes sudoku and fine wines.]

CLUE FOUR: How easy it was to forget the minutiae of the case — the dates, the amounts, the stock transfers and telescoping bank loans, all that paper-shuffling…

FINALLY: Instead of a former company director under indictment for alleged ‘corporate misconduct’… [Sounds boring and technical, that’s all I need to know.]

At this part of his journey towards prison Leon is teetering on the edge of sanity. The reader, along with Leon, doesn’t know for sure whether he’s being followed by white vans. Drewe draws us into Leon’s paranoia with the close third person point of view (a.ka. close psychic distance). Notice how the narrator chooses to take us into Leon’s head when it suits, then pulls out to offer a commentary on his personality that Leon himself probably doesn’t understand. For instance, in the opening paragraph below, does Leon know just how important the swimming is to him, or is this something only a narrator would understand fully? Notice also what Drewe has chosen to put inside brackets. I believe when he uses the brackets he’s inserting what Leon himself would tell us, moving more fully into Leon’s head in a paragraph which is otherwise psychically distant:

Naked and forty-seven, Leon K. backstroked steadily up and down the lap pool, an eddy of drowned insects in his wake. Of course he knew his rhythm by now; he automatically counted strokes as well as laps. … Despite the pool’s cool temperature (it was a windy autumn and the connection to the solar panels on the farmhouse roof was broken) he needed to swim in order to relax…

However, when Drewe wants to the reader to share in Leon’s confused view on reality, we’re right inside Leon’s head (close psychic narration). First we are offered Leon’s parallel view of reality, the story that goes on inside his head:

What should he anticipate around the next murky head? A riskily unlit hippie cyclist, an invisible hitchhiker, a petrol tanker thundering across the imperceptible lane markings? Would he ever see his way clear?

Lists feature heavily in this short story as well. The lists are in keeping with Leon’s psychological trick of counting his strokes, his laps, his days. He’s counting down his days towards death (though the reader doesn’t know it yet). Notice how in the paragraph below Drewe uses various kinds of lists. The first sentence describes the same thing (his fugue) in three different phrasings. The second sentence is a more traditional ‘list’, checking off all the things Leon hears around him:

At the start of his troubles he’d tried to fight the unusual effect [his solicitor’s monotone] had on him: the gradual fainting sensation and cloudy vision, leading to a total mental fade-out, a sort of grey noise where only background sounds had any relevants. The tap-tapping of the pool’s filter box, magpies calling on the lawn, brush turkeys scratching in the shrubbery.

Below, there’s no ‘bird’s eye narrator’ telling the reader, don’t worry, there’s no white car following Leon, he’s just imagining it:

Whenever he went to town, purposely observing the speed limit, his car was tailgated by furious motorists, and also sometimes by mysterious white vehicles. Several times he’d noticed a white car parked in his lane while someone photographed the house and property from the front gate. When he stepped outside to question the photographer, the man (he couldn’t tell if it was the same man) nonchalantly sauntered to his car and accelerated away. Some authority keeping tabs on him, he supposed. One of the many gung-ho State and Federal acronyms fighting corporate crime nowadays, all competing to capture the big-business scalps.

DESIRE

We can deduce that Leon doesn’t want to be found guilty and sent to prison, but that’s actually outside the realms of this story.

This particular snapshot of Leon’s life centres on a short period before his court case in which he’s losing everything. He’s lost his family, his friends, most of his assets. In this story he wants to keep his grip on reality as best he can, stave off paranoia and worry, and keep doing laps in the pool on his run-down farm.

OPPONENT

What’s stopping him?

First it’s his lawyer, who is otherwise on his side. (For the part that happens outside the bounds of this story.)

Against his own best interests he’d come to dread the weekly visit of the one person who might at least clarify matters for him

What else is stopping him from psychic peace? He is widely disliked by his neighbours because he comes from Eastern Sydney (Vaucluse is an expensive part of Australia). In a story about the rural urban divide, Leon’s rural neighbours make natural opponents.

Of course his neighbours, real farmers, many of whose ancestors had razed the original rainforest to plant gras for their cattle, detested the camphor laurel as an alien weed…

A note about the camphor. As noted by the narrator, the ‘detested camphor laurel’ is closely associated with ‘the Asian Hordes’ in rural Australia. (Camphor features heavily in Japanese animation My Neighbour Totoro.) In South Asia, camphor is considered highly purifying is used to represent the dissolution of the ego since it burns without leaving any trace. I’m not sure if Drewe had this symbolism in mind when he wrote this story, but let’s imagine nothing is an accident.

What he absolutely did know is that the camphor laurel is “probably is a tree that has stirred up more emotion than anything.” It grows quickly around the Big Scrub area and provides nice, green, leafy shade but is now considered a weed. Farmers are currently divided between those who consider the camphor tree a problem and those who are okay with a more gradual eradication.

The ‘community’ as opponent requires a face, and that face needs to appear in a scene. In this case it’s the old hippie who yells at Leon in the street, calling him a wog.

Finally a romantic opponent arrives, or a proxy. Drewe is making use of that old chestnut in which women are closer to the earth (because women are the vessels of reproduction and provide food from the body), while men consider themselves closer to god. Like many of Drewe’s middle-aged male narrators, Leon big struggles against his own hormonal/physical reaction to a woman when he knows, for propriety’s sake, he’s not meant to react in that way. In reality, the snake catcher (an erotic pun?) has nothing to do with Leon’s big struggle against himself.

But notice how what Leon thinks he thinks about men and women isn’t actually how he feels about men and women. Before the arrival of the unexpectedly woman snake catcher, Leon (or the narrator) has this to say about men:

Male habits made a disgusting list. The deep indentations their buttocks left int he sofa, the everlasting stink in the bathroom, the eggy detritus of their breakfast plates. Representing his gender, irritating and unaware Wyntuhl had a lot to answer for. Men were so rooted to the ground, over-earthed and overbearing.

PLAN

Although it really tests Leon to pick up the phone in his current psychological state, he has no choice but to call the snake catcher.

In Australia these people really do exist, and this is what we’re meant to do if we find an unwelcome snake on our property. We’re not meant to wait until the creature is almost dead before calling, because snakes are a protected species. In short, Leon does nothing at all until he really has to.

BIG STRUGGLE

The snake catcher removes the snake deftly from the pool. Another writer might’ve made a big deal out of that, turning it into the Battle scene. But this would’ve been the wrong thing to do, because this is not the Battle scene of the story at all. Instead, it is written in a matter-of-fact way, as if describing a laundry cycle:

When a second snake emerges in the pool and bites Leon on the neck (of all places) the story has jumped the shark. Or, more generously, Drewe has plunged us more firmly into fairytale realm.

ANAGNORISIS

A dead character can’t exactly have a anagnorisis but they can have some thoughts just as they expire. Leon asks the snake catcher woman, “What do I do now?” He has realised his powerlessness. Until now he’s distracted himself with swimming and sudoku and whatnot, but finally he’s realised the extent of his own vulnerability.

This is why I think Drewe knows full well the symbolism behind camphor. Leon has shucked off his ego.

NEW SITUATION

Leon is dead. He won’t have to go to court, I guess.

There’s an ideology implicitly embedded in stories like these, in which a main character commits wrongs against society and then ends up punished by nature: That nature has its own karmic force.

This sums up why I’m not personally a fan of stories like this. My own worldview is inversely that nature doesn’t care. Worse, due to how we’ve set society up, nature in reality takes good people more often than it takes the Leon Ks of this world.

Symbolism of the Beach in Australian Literature

Sydney convict art beach

Iconic Examples of Australian Beach Stories

There are a great number of natural landscapes in Australia apart from beaches (rainforests, desert areas, snow-capped mountains) yet the beach has somehow become iconic.

In Australia, there is a cabal of writers who can be described as ‘Australian Coastal Gothic’.

  • Tim Winton
  • Robert Drewe
  • Peter Temple

These novels and short stories are often about men who retreat from inland areas to the coast. The setting is dark and brooding. The men have secrets. They are often in mourning over a woman’s death. They meet grotesque characters who almost personify their grief. Beaches are badlands.

What is distinctive about the Australian beach?

The term ‘beach’ in Australia has a wider meaning than its geographical qualities. 

Beaches exist all over the world but are an internationally iconic image of Australia. The beach is pervasive in Australian advertising, tourism and popular representation. The beach is presented as idyllic, almost nostalgic and beautiful.

Tourist photos of the Australian beach tend to focus on the natural aspects and remove amenities. The exception to this is The Gold Coast, in which the beach and urban cannot be disentangled. Images will include skyscrapers along the waterfront. 

Some beaches are far more hospitable than others. There is great variation. Water temperature varies a lot at any given time. Tasmanian beaches are more suitable for picnicking than swimming because the water is generally cold. Northern beaches near Darwin are unsafe because of crocodiles.

In Australia rural and urban areas tend to stand in opposition to one another (with preference for the rural). The beach falls into both camps — it is ‘natural landscape’ but it is also an extension of suburbia.

The beach is associated with leisure, hedonism pleasure, indolence. The beach is healing, a place of escape, a spiritual place.

When the beach is depicted as healing, there’s a big difference between characters who live at the beach and those who holiday there. Tourists don’t have to fit beach time around the ordinary aspects of their lives. The holiday is itself an escape.

But beach holidays often induce guilt. Characters feel guilty at what they leave behind. Guilt can provide the motivation to make big changes in a character’s ordinary, non-holiday life. The holiday itself triggers a character arc.

In fiction targeted at women, a holiday to the beach can make a female main character reassess who she is looking for as a romantic partner. She might be an uptight sort of character who loses her sexual inhibitions on holiday and is forever changed because of it. Beach holidays can let women reclaim parts of themselves that they’ve lost touch with (apart from sexual aspects). They can forget about societal expectations placed upon women in everyday life, giving them a feminist ideology.

In this way, the beach can act as a type of mirror. The natural beauty of the beach allows a woman to see the natural beauty in herself.

Beautiful places have been shown to be good for mental health. (We get the same effect in a forest.)

A beautiful setting allows for a binary to exist — beautiful versus non-beautiful. This is why the mythic natural beauty of the beach can symbolise heaven on earth. Horror films subvert this, juxtaposing a beautiful beach against death. The beautiful playground of a beach can become a kind of prison. Characters move from freedom to slavery.

The message of some horror beach films is that characters create their own fate by disturbing a pristine environment. They had no business being there. Nature (or supernature) shrugs them off.

Australia has no legend based on how we live as an urban coastal society, unlike the myth of the bush, which is a strong tradition. Yet for many modern Australians, the beach is a more familiar territory than ‘the bush’. 

British people tend to see natural landscape in terms of ‘countryside’ and ‘seaside’. At the ‘seaside’ you get resorts, relaxation and therapeutic results. But The Australian beach is a place for swimming and surfing. Australian beachgoers are not passive. Even when not swimming or surfing, Australians bring their beach furniture with them and decide where to sit. They are holidaymakers rather than beachgoers.

When compared to American beaches, Australian beaches feel ‘transient’. Australian holidaymakers are responsible for bringing everything — you can’t hire umbrellas and lounges like you can in Honolulu. Holiday resorts do exist in Australia (e.g. Byron Bay) but there is not much emphasis on those in literature. Australian beach culture is far more accepting of nature than in trying to impose human order onto it.

Bush mythologies tend to idealise individuality. You’re on your own out there. Survival in the bush is seen as a personal achievement. But the beach is all about pleasures shared with others. ‘Indecent’ pleasures challenge social norms in a community. Competitive sport flourishes.

The naturalness of the beach is part of the myth of the Australian beach. This is the beach of our imagination. In this imagined version of the beach, we’re the only person walking along pristine beaches of untouched sand.

In fact the beach is surveilled: The beach is under the eye of the lifeguard from the tower, and increasingly, the beach is also observed through technological means such as cameras installed to detect erosion.

Many Indigenous texts place more importance on fresh water than the beach. Yet there are still some important aspects of the beach that feature in the writing of Indigenous authors and in films that feature Indigenous characters.

Iconic Australian beaches: Surfers Paradise (Gold Coast, Queensland) and Bondi Beach (Sydney, New South Wales). These settings are also common in Australian stories.

Normally the word ‘badlands‘ conjures images of extensive tracts of heavily eroded, uncultivable land with little vegetation, for instance the barren plateau region of the western US (North and South Dakota and Nebraska). But the Australian beach can be used as a type of badlands.

In the 1960s the Beaumont children went missing. (Their mother recently died without ever knowing what happened to them.) They disappeared from Glenelg Beach near Adelaide, South Australia on 26 January 1966 (Australia Day)

Harold Holt went swimming in the sea and never returned. He was Australia’s prime minister. The fact that a prime minister can go missing like that is seen as a quintessentially Australian thing. We like to think this could never happen to the American president, whose body is protected, his every move monitored.

In the 1980s and 90s, infamous gay hate murders took place on Bondi beaches

Bra Boys is a movie about the Cronulla riots of 2005

Crime, assaults and kidnapped children continue to be plots in fictional texts with beach settings. 

The beach is often a horror setting e.g. The Long Weekend (1978) and Lost Things (2003). Sometimes the beauty of the beach juxtaposes against the horror that unfolds e.g. The Long Weekend (1978 movie), Lost Things (2003 movie). Like any good horror story, the setting (in this case the beach) is initially set up as an idyllic, beautiful place. Also true to the horror genre, these beaches are difficult to reach and isolated. The humans are plucked off from the herd. In a Love story, the beach can act as a mirror, showing the (female) main character the beauty in herself. In a horror story the beach can also act as a mirror, but this time it reflects the evil within the main character(s).

In either case, the beach has the power to reveal some sort of truth.

The beauty of the beach is sometimes cast as ‘tempting’ e.g. Two Hands (1999 film). Bondi Beach is depicted as a glittering ocean which entices Jimmy into the water, away from his tasks. 

The Australian beach is increasingly urban as the city and its suburbs encroach further onto the sand. 

Philip Drew, in his work The Coast Dwellers, believes that the Europeans brought their own understanding of space to Australia when they arrived in the late 19th century. Europeans journeyed here with a “conception of a closed centric world”. But this understanding that did not fit the geographical complexities of the country they found themselves in.

Even natural beach elements can be scary. Nature is unpredictable and we can’t control it (shark attacks, wild weather). 

The beach is considered a space of equality. Anyone can go there, whether rich or poor. No one owns the beach. Once at the beach, no one is judged on the norms of the rest of their lives — everyone is now just a person at the beach, perhaps stripped down without clothes as status symbols. Employment and wealth is discarded. However, in practice the classless beach isn’t real, sometimes made clear in fiction as well. In Puberty Blues Kathy Lette describes Green Hills beach as trendy while beaches at the sound end of Cronulla are family friendly (but not trendy).

Some texts objectify women on the sand. Surfing texts are very masculine. Some films objectify other kinds of bodies, including the bodies of men. 

a policeman measures a woman's bathers to check for modesty
Bathing suit police existed in Australia. Not the image of freedom and equality young Australians might conjure today.

Australian beach films are rarely financially or critically successful. (e.g. Newcastle) But still Australians keep trying to make beach movies and TV shows. 

The beach is neither marginal nor liminal. It allows the imaginative and the social to exist at once within the same landscape. This is called ‘Beachspace’. Liminal is all about the concepts of transition and shifting ambiguities, categorised by disorientation and a loss of belonging. In contrast, the beach can create a sense of belonging, or multiple belongings. 

Like high places, the beach can be used as a place to gain perspective, especially by going surfing. For surfers, waves can be a refuge and like driving, afford a sense of control. The main character of Breath by Tim Winton (2008) uses the surf in this way. He feels he can’t control death around him in his regular life.

Even though characters might try to use the beach as a safe space away from their ordinary lives, the beach isn’t always binary in that way. Floating in the shallows is similar to sitting in a bath, affording characters the space to think. Characters often have anagnorises in the water.

When a Manly school sets out to bring a country class to the city for a beach visit, three very different kids find each other and themselves.

Noah is fearless in the surf. Being at the beach makes him feel free. So where does his courage go when his best mate pushes him around?

Lottie loves collecting facts about bugs, but she wishes her dad would stop filling their lonely house with junk. She doesn’t know what to do about it.

Jack wants to be a cricket star, but first he has to get to school and look after his little sister. Especially if he wants to go on the class trip and see the ocean for the first time.

OTHER BEACHES IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

by Kathleen Hale for “Orlando the Marmalade Cat – A Seaside Holiday” (1952)
All Around Me Opposites by Shirley Hughes
All Around Me Opposites by Shirley Hughes

A young girl is unhappy about having to leave the city for a family vacation on the Pacific Ocean (which she used to call the Specific Ocean).

As the days pass, however, she is drawn to spend more time in and near the water, feeling moved by its beauty and rhythms. “The ocean does its own thing, rolling backward and forward. Wash, swash, splush, hush. There is no late or hurry or racing in ocean time.”

By the end of the vacation, the girl has grown to love the ocean and now feels reluctant to leave it behind.

But as she soon realises, it doesn’t ever have to leave her.

FURTHER READING

Header painting is a View of Sydney from the West side of the Cover painted in 1806 by a convict artist John Eyre. Some convicts were artists. Some of them were even convicted because of art — for forgery.

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