Book ReviewsAustralian authors

Shell by Kristina Olssen [Book Review]

An Exquisite, Haunting Novel From Australia

Cover of Shell, a novel set in Australia by Kristina Olssen

Shell is the third novel by the Australian author Kristina Olssen. Whoever selected that title made an inspired choice because it perfectly captures the fragility of her two protagonists. It also has an affinity with the principal design feature of the iconic Sydney Opera House whose construction forms a background to the novel. 

The year is 1965. Construction of the opera house is mired in controversy amid complaints of spiralling costs and aversion to its unusual design. A newly-elected government begins to put pressure on the Danish-born architect Jørn Utzon to cut costs and speed up completion. 

The Opera House project is not the only contentious issue occupying the attention of the media. The country has entered the war in Vietnam and young Australian men are being conscripted to alongside American allies.

It’s against this background that we enter the lives of Axel Lundquist,, a Swedish glassmaker, and Pearl Keogh, a fiercely independent Australian journalist.

Keogh is ideologically opposed to the war, taking to the streets to voice her opinion in anti-war demonstrations. Though she has a social conscience she also has a more personal reason for her opposition. She has two young brothers who are the right age to be called up. She lost them when they disappeared into the welfare system after their mother died. Her nights are filled with nightmares that she may never find them again.

Her path converges with Axel Lundquist, a young Swedish glassmaker brought to Sydney to create a glass sculpture for the opera house.

ALives In The Gaps

Like Pearl, Lundquist has a gap, an absence, in his life.  He views Utzon as an inspiration and is desperate to meet the man in the flesh. He wants to understand his vision and his inspiration. His desire borders on obsession, taking him on solitary walks around the harbour and to a remote coastal settlement as he follows up on reports of possible sitings. In the absence of a physical meeting with his guru, Lundquist must turn to the building itself for answers.

… what had begun as a mundane assembly of materials – sand, and lime and pebble – was now a thing of beauty, a ceiling of ships. Sitting here was like being underwater, looking up at the hulls of twenty boats floating side by side. Or the corrugations in mudflats left by a departing tide.

Until then he had thought concrete brutal. Used internally it was a material of expedience, easy and cheap. But here it was as tactile as fabric, evocative as wood.

As construction progresses, his appreciation deepens further that this is far more than just a building.

… he closed his eyes. And opened them to a vision: the new building lifting its wings above the land, the water, above all those heads that didn’t know. not yet, what it might say about them. How free they were to become who they were, or could be.

Shell Will Grow On You

This is a novel that takes a little time to fully appreciate. The storyline is discontinuous and I was confused at times by some of the episodes involving Pearl. But gradually it hooked me in.

The book really comes alive when we get access to Lundquist’s thought process as he imagines a sculpture matching the beauty and extraordinary characteristics of Utzon’s design creation.

There were some particularly interesting insights on Australian attitudes to its cultural heritage. Lundquist grows to like Sydney, a city whose sandstone buildings look to him ” like a painted set, a picture from a child’s schoolbook”. But he’s disappointed that for all the bright veneer, parks and neat streets, the city has lost its connection to the past, the feeling that:

Beneath this layer of living, this past two hundred years, were the traces of that older civilisation, a thick network of paths and habitation, the tracks of people and animals.

He expands on this later on in the novel:

‘Australians appeared to have no myths of their own, no stories to pass down. He’d read about the myths of indigenous people, the notion of a Dreaming and the intricate stories it comprised. He wondered if Utzon knew these legends, their history in this place. Had he known anything of Aboriginal people when he designed his building? As he sat down and drew shapes that could turn a place sacred? Turn its people poetic: their eyes to a harbour newly revealed by the building, its depths and colours new to them, and surprising. Perhaps that was what the architect was doing here: creating a kind of Dreaming, a shape and structure that would explain these people to themselves. Perhaps the building was just that: a secular bible, a Rosetta stone, a treaty. A story to be handed down. If people would bother to look. If they’d bother to see.’

Construction of the Sydney Opera House forms the backdrop to Shell, a novel by Kristina Olssen

Kristina Olsson has some exquisite turns of phrase; the Opera House for example is variously described as “a bowl, newly shattered”, “bleached bones against the paling sky” and “as if the architect had once held a shell to his ear, and heard as well as seen the design”. I’ve never visited Sydney myself but Olsson’s precise descriptions of the magnificence of this structure had me desperately hoping I can get there soon.

Though I enjoyed the themes and warmed to the characters, there’s no getting away from the fact that the knock out element of this novel really is the portrayal of that building. It towers over everything: an emerging beauty capable of producing a deep emotional reaction but also suggesting possibilities and potential.

As Lindquist describes it:

Everywhere he looked he saw what Utzon saw. The drama of harbour and horizon, and at night, the star-clotted sky. It held the shape of the possible, of a promise made and waiting to be kept.

I hadn’t heard of Kristina Olssen until I saw Lisa’s blog post on ANZLitLovers’ blog I’ve learned that if Lisa describes a book as ‘sensational’ and her book of the year, then it’s one I definitely should read. Thanks Lisa for giving me such a hauntingly beautiful reading experience.

Shell by Kristina Olsson: Footnotes

Kristina Olsson is an Australian journalist and teacher. Her first novel In One Skin was published  in 2001. She followed this with the biography Kilroy Was Here, which told the story of Debbie Kilroy. In 2010 her novel The China Garden won the Barbara Jefferis Award, which is offered annually for Australian novels which depict women and girls positively, or empower the position of women in society.

I had planned to read Shell while on a holiday to Australia and New Zealand, thinking I would time if to coincide with my arrival in Sydney. But the plans went awry so I never got there, reading the book instead in a cold Welsh spring instead of a warm Australian autumn


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

11 thoughts on “Shell by Kristina Olssen [Book Review]

  • I lived in another State at the time but from memory I recall the first concept designs were longer and lower but the finished building has higher peaks.

  • Great review, and a wonderful book! Controversy raged fiercely for years and I cannot write here some of the derisive terms those sound shells were given. While visually impressive I was never keen on the interior.

    • I’ve discovered that the architect left the project before it was completed and a different architect was brought in to finish it. Was the final design very different from the original concept?

    • It must have been so dispiriting for the architect. I wonder if he lived long enough to see how much impact his design has now had – for most of the visitors who go to Sydney, the opera house is a must see sight

  • Lovely review. I started the book but was distracted by other things at the time so quite deliberately put it aside until I could give it my full attention. I must move it back to the top of the pile.

    • It did take some concentration at the beginning so you made the right decision.

  • Oh, I am so glad you liked it! our review is just wonderful:)

    • Thanks are really to you for highlighting this. I wouldn’t have come across it in the normal course of things – one of the aspects of book blogging I love the most is the discovery of new to me authors

    • Sadly I don’t think we will see this book being promoted in UK. As with all Australian published books, the cost is pretty high and they very rarely make it to paperback. I managed to get my copy reasonably priced via ebay but usually when I go looking for a New Zealand or Australian published novel, the cost is prohibitive, even second hand


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