Review: 30 Days In Sydney By Peter Carey Essay, Research Paper
A bridge too far30 Days in Sydney Peter CareyBloomsbury £9.99, pp248After a decade in New York, Peter Carey returned to Sydney for a month last year, intending, as he conquistadorially puts it, to ‘make claim on the city’. The claim, of course, is imaginative, though Carey does eye some property at Bondi and wonder whether he should repatriate his family. As the plane descends, he cranes to see the harbour. Sydney, after all, can be usefully reduced to a single image: that stern, utilitarian bridge, dourly transplanted from Newcastle-on-Tyne, which confronts the unfunctionally beautiful Opera House, a coathanger and a clump of shining, singing shells. But cloud effaces the view, and Carey is reminded that other, earlier writers have found themselves dumbfounded by the splendour of the place. His little book begins by quoting Trollope, who admitted: ‘I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour.’ Once on the ground, Carey himself does not so much fail the challenge of description as circumvent it. He has a phobia about the harbour bridge and once suffered a caffeine-induced panic attack while driving across it. He finally deals with it by describing a woozy dream in which he climbs its span and flies triumphantly above the city. This reads like a garbled digest of The Matrix and Mission Impossible 2, in which Keanu Reeves and Tom Cruise perform similar acrobatics high above Sydney’s business district. Carey is better when evoking an older, interred city that can no longer be seen – the midden of aboriginal remains on top of which the Opera House was built, the water courses beneath the commercial skyscrapers – or when paying alarmed tribute to the natural energies that threaten Sydney: its ‘bullying blustering wind’ (euphemised by the locals as a sea breeze), the treachery of its waters, the menace of circumambient bushfires. He is good on the sprawling suburban ugliness that takes over as soon as you lose sight of the water and acknowledges the despair and terror induced by the empty, estranging ocean. On the sandstone cliffs above the Pacific, there’s a launching-pad called the Gap, not to be confused with the retailer of leisurewear. Here, once or twice a week, citizens of Sydney who remain unhappy in paradise jump to their deaths; the media never report these incidents, reluctant to damage the city’s hedonistic reputation. Carey’s approach is partial, peripheral and ultimately frustrating. Apart from a few telling anecdotes, he relies on tape-recording the boozy garrulity of his old mates or transcribing paragraphs from Darwin and the Sydney Morning Herald (a practice made dubious by his affected refusal to use quotation marks, so it’s often hard to tell who’s writing). The book reminds me of those Sydney flats which, unable to boast harbour views, are said by the anxious estate agents to possess ‘harbour glimpses’. Buyer beware.