Whoever selected the title for Kristina Olsson’s superb third novel ,Shell, made an inspired choice.
The title perfectly captures the fragility of her two protagonists, a Swedish glassmaker and the fiercely independent Australian journalist. Pearl Keogh. But 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. I had no idea until I read Shell that there was so much controversy surrounding the construction or criticism directed at the architect.
Anti War Feelings
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.
Pearl 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.
A Life Of 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 Pear. 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.’
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 Olsson 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: Endnotes
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.