Reading Spirit of Progress was one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a long time. I picked it up immediately after finishing Graham Swift’s new novel Wish You Were Here and it felt good to move from a grey, foot-and-mouth-diseased Britain to a bright, openedspaced Australia. It took me back to my primary-school days when we would watch films about the construction of a new and exciting Australia. The films were black and white and may have been made around the time that this book is set.
Spirit of Progress is a ‘prequel’ to Steven Carroll’s The Art of the Engine Driver, the first of his ‘Glenroy’ trilogy. While it begins and ends in 1977, most of the story is set in the immediate post-war years in Melbourne as the country starts life afresh. (At one stage, one of the characters even wonders when the expression ‘post war’ began being used.)
The main characters are George, who works for a newspaper, Tess, who runs an art gallery, and Sam, who is an artist. George, Tess and Sam are in contact with characters from previous ‘Glenroy’ novels: Vic, Rita, Michael—who is about to be born—and the property developer Webster. In Carroll’s richly layered world, Sam paints a portrait of Vic’s aunt Katherine, who lives in a tent on the outskirts of suburbia where Webster is about to put big plans into action. You’ll have to read it to find out more.
While much of the action takes place in Australia, there is also a post-war attraction for Australians to go ‘elsewhere’. War brides go elsewhere, Sam goes elsewhere, and the book begins and ends in France. (There is also a vineyard in Tasmania called ‘Elsewhere’, which is named after the weatherman’s comments that it will rain here, shower there but be fine elsewhere.) This book is worth reading for its marvelous construction, from the story down to the beautifully phrased sentences which ring full of music. It is a joy to read such richly crafted phrases, in particular, Carroll’s repeated juxtaposition of opposites—this is this and it’s not this at all.
I am sure everyone who has read the ‘Glenroy’ series will welcome this addition. If Graham Greene can have the phrase ‘Greene-land’ used to celebrate his fictional world, I hope Steven Carroll gets recognition for the Australia he records. Perhaps it should be called ‘Carroll-land’.
Clive Tilsley is a bookseller at Fullers Bookshop. This review first appeared in the July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.