When I recently returned home from overseas – a five week stint in Europe and the UK – I felt immensely proud of Sydney and glad to be home.
But I was aware that this feeling was, in part, artificial. I knew what I really liked was the familiarity. Travelling abroad, for me at least, is like the discomfort you feel having to drive someone else’s car or use their pantry. From the first day back I wanted to embrace the inner west, smell Glebe’s dankness, gaze wistfully from the Anzac Bridge and have a brilliant Newtown coffee.
So when I saw this book and read a few paragraphs in Kinokuniya, it suited my state of mind – I wanted to know what made Sydney a shiny world-class city but also to understand how it differed from the other grand metropolises of the world.
Sydney answered my first desire wonderfully. (Just like when you visit Manly and always think these people have it all! It’s like always being on holiday!) And for many good reasons, I’m certain, the book avoided the comparisons of my second desire. (Ten minutes on the corso and you want out.)
Sydney, Delia suggests, is a mass of contradictions, all revolving around a central failing that it wants beauty but more readily embraces ugliness; It’s urge is to play and be playful but it is in fact an angry workaholic, Sydney delights in the finer points of life but also adores debauchery. Delia has a point. She has many and perhaps too many. There are myriad metaphors for Sydney and she writes with a colour that does the metropolitan area proud, but, like Darling Harbour, she just tries a bit too hard.
The author has an intriguing history herself and perhaps because of that, she feels at one with Sydney in many deeply profound ways. She grew up playing with the kids of Brett Whiteley and her parents knew Patrick White. She seems like something of a socialite but thankfully doesn’t get too high-brow on the reader. (She’s the Chatswood of writers.)
Delia has many fascinating sidelines about how our city functions and its people oscillate around our festivals and routines. She exposes our bigotry and our generosity equally. She draws on Kenneth Slessor’s great old poems and splices little known colonial history with recent memories.
Towards the end of the book, it all starts to unravel – like when Anzac Parade reaches La Perouse “Where are we?” I remember thinking. “It’s Mad Max meets Blacktown!” – and the book’s editor’s get sloppy as the author starts navel-gazing.
Maybe it’s all supposed to resemble a walk across the Harbour Bridge. It begins wonderfully, then half way along you realise the fences spoil the view and by the end you think it’d be fabulous if they’d just finished it right.
Delia Falconer is the author of two novels, The Service of Clouds and The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers; both were shortlisted for major Australian and international awards, including the Miles Franklin and Commonwealth Prize.
Get Sydney at Boomerang Books