BOOK REVIEW: Spirit of Progress (Steven Carroll, Fourth Estate)

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.

Bookseller+Publisher magazine: July issue top picks

The July issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine has landed! Here are some of the forthcoming releases that impressed our reviewers this issue:

Spirit of Progress (Steven Carroll, Fourth Estate, August)
Clive Tilsley of Fullers Bookshop in Tasmania reviewed Steven Carroll’s Spirit of  Progress, a ‘prequel’ to The Art of the Engine Driver, the first of Carroll’s ‘Glenroy’ trilogy. ‘Reading Spirit of Progress was one of the most enjoyable things I have done for a long time,’ writes Tilsley. ‘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… I am sure everyone who has read the ‘Glenroy’ series will welcome this addition.’

Babylon (Stephen Sewell, Victory, August)
Rachel Edwards, events manager at Fullers Bookshop in Hobart, declares Babylon ‘a taut and unpredictable crime novel from Stephen Sewell, who is best known as a playwright and scriptwriter and who recently adapted the film Animal Kingdom into book form’. Charismatic psychopath Dan is driving a stolen black Chevrolet when he picks up Mick, a young English backpacker. ‘Dan’s flair and immediate power over the vulnerable Mick are slowly teased out in an extended cop-chase/road-trip through a dark and mythic east-coast Australia,’ writes Edwards. ‘This is a tightly written literary crime novel.’

Cargo (Jessica Au, Picador, August)
Bookseller+Publisher
journalist Eloise Keating says former Meanjin deputy editor Jessica Au’s debut novel Cargo is ‘a stunning and compelling read’. The novel weaves together the stories of three teenagers finding their way in the early 1990s in Currawong, a small Australian coastal town in which the lives of residents are invariably influenced by the water that surrounds them,’ writes Keating. ‘Au captures the rawness of her protagonists’ emotions with compassion and skill, as well as refreshing honesty… the complexity and uncertainty of growing up is celebrated in this unique snapshot of adolescence which will be appreciated by readers of all ages.’

The Courier’s New Bicycle (Kim Westwood, HarperVoyager, August)
Perth-based bookseller Stefen Brazulaitis said that while Westwood’s novel ‘will definitely appeal to science-fiction readers’, he’d recommend it to adventurous literary fiction fans too. ‘Salisbury “Sal” Forth is a bicycle courier in a future Melbourne, running contraband through the back streets of a society in turmoil. Mass vaccinations against the latest super flu have tipped the body chemistry of most of the population into endocrine crisis and infertility. With the government dominated by anti-technology Christian fundamentalists, the illegal hormone packages that Sal delivers are the only hope some have…’

RPM (Noel Mengel, UQP, August)
Reviewer Jarrah Moore was impressed by Noel Mengel’s novel, set in 1984 in a small silo town in Queensland, about ‘a mismatched group of dreamers and cultural outcasts’. ‘What connects the characters is their shared obsession with music, and the same thing holds the book together,’ she writes. ‘This is a book with heart, delicate characterisation and a striking sense of place: the small-town world with its wide open spaces and narrow minds, and the vibrant music aficionados scene that springs up around the record store RPM come together in a way that is both idealised and deeply honest.’

Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham, NewSouth Books, August)
In nonfiction, bookseller Veronica Sullivan enjoyed the fourth in NewSouth Books’ series of popular histories of Australian capital cities: Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne. ‘As a former editor of Melbourne-based literary journal Meanjin, Cunningham is uniquely qualified to dissect the city. She offers an intimate, nuanced perspective of Melbourne past, present and future. This is the Melbourne of Graham Kennedy, Helen Garner and Mick Gatto, but also of generations of artists, cyclists, Collingwood fans and the covert urban explorers known as the Cave Clan,’ writes Sullivan. ‘This book is lively and accessible, with a voice that is informative but not didactic, making it ideal both as an insiders’ guide for locals and an introduction for curious outsiders.’

A Small Book about Drugs (Lisa Pryor, A&U, August)
Portia Lindsay says A Small Book About Drugs by former Sydney Morning Herald columnist Lisa Pryor is ‘a persuasively written and thought-provoking essay that warrants serious consideration by young people, parents, politicians, law enforcement and the media’. It ‘offers a controversial perspective on recreational drug use, as discusses many aspects of the practice that are often taboo in mainstream debate,’ writes Lindsay.

Violin Lessons (Arnold Zable, Text, August)
Lindsay also reviews Arnold Zable’s Violin Lessons in which ‘music in its many forms provides comfort, escape or nostalgia for a variety of trapped or displaced individuals—the Iraqi refugee reunited with his band, the Polish labourer enchanted by his music box, the Cambodian fisherman who serenades the river’. ‘This book is a wonderfully complex, sad and beautiful read,’ writes Lindsay.

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