About the Book:
A big, bold and hauntingly beautiful story that captures a defining moment in Australia’s history.
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 …
In 1965 as Danish architect Jørn Utzon’s striking vision for the Sydney Opera House transforms the skyline and unleashes a storm of controversy, the shadow of the Vietnam War and a deadly lottery threaten to tear the country apart.
Journalist Pearl Keogh, exiled to the women’s pages after being photographed at an anti-war protest, is desperate to find her two missing brothers and save them from the draft. Axel Lindquist, a visionary young glass artist from Sweden, is obsessed with creating a unique work that will do justice to Utzon’s towering masterpiece.
In this big, bold and hauntingly beautiful portrait of art and life, Shell captures a world on the brink of seismic change though the eyes of two unforgettable characters caught in the eye of the storm.
And reminds us why taking a side matters.
‘There was no Swedish word to describe this, no English word that he knew; it wasn’t as simple as ‘awe’ or even ‘love’. It was the clutch at his heart as he lifted his eyes to its curves and lines. Its reach for beauty, a connection between the human and the sublime.’
Since its release last month, in my capacity as editor for historical fiction with the Australian Women Writers Challenge, I have read quite a few reviews on Shell, with no one reviewer saying the same thing. This in itself was reason enough for me to want to check it out and form my own opinion, but in the end, it was Lisa from ANZ LitLovers LitBlog who really persuaded me to read this novel post haste (do check out her review here). But it wasn’t all love at the first chapter for me, I will admit this and for the first seventy odd pages, I really felt as though I just couldn’t put my finger on the pulse of what was happening. There was a vagueness to the narrative which, to me, evaded full disclosure. It was almost as though I had to read between the lines of what was being alluded. However, in hindsight, I can note that these initial impressions can probably be attributed to the way in which I was reading the novel, more than the novel itself. I was picking it up in short bursts on Saturday, in between hanging out copious amounts of washing and acting as a taxi for my children all day long. Anyway, it wasn’t until I was able to really settle down with Shell in the evening that this dawned on me. Because all of a sudden, without distraction, I realised that this novel was actually quite exceptional.
‘Her own rollies had never tasted as sweet as she’d imagined. She’d thought they’d be just like those mornings, which held the deep flinty smell of her father’s breath and skin, like the embers of old kindling. She’d searched for years for precisely the right tobacco, settling recently for a blend of plum and spice she found consoling, if not sweet. Those hours with her father re-enacted in the rhythm of the match striking, the tobacco catching, the shape of thumb and forefinger around the smoke.’
There are so many moments of introspection from both of the main characters, Pearl and Axel, that gave me pause for reflection. Passages I read two, and even three times, just enjoying the beauty of the words and the way Kristina Olsson strings them together. This is why I needed to sink into the novel, rather than just pick it up and put it down over and over. While the narrative is engaging, it’s the beauty of the unsaid that takes this novel to the next level, and in order to appreciate the unsaid, you need time and no distractions.
‘She looked up, and between half-heard words and phrases, in the shifting space between earth and sky, she saw it: the boys had been abandoned by them all. Mother, father, sister. Through death, grief, selfishness – in one way or another, they’d each disappeared, left them. Leaving was what her brothers knew. What they expected.’
I have never actually been to the Opera House. The most I’ve seen of it is from the window of an airplane as we cruised into Sydney on an international connection flight. I have no physical context for which to place this story, no visual memories to draw on, yet while reading about it in Shell, I could picture the intricacies perfectly, her descriptions so precise and detailed that visiting the Opera House was not a prerequisite for enjoying this novel – to my relief, because some reviews I have read were from people who have visited the Opera House and they all mentioned how this helped them with the visualisation of its creation as it was described within the novel. Rest assured, if you are like me and haven’t yet had the pleasure of visiting, it’s not going to impact on your appreciation of this aspect of the novel. I never knew that there was so much controversy surrounding its construction. Seeing this all unfold through Axel’s eyes provided an insightful perspective, particularly his thoughts on Australians and the way we consider beauty and culture. In particular:
‘It wasn’t that they didn’t understand beauty. But there was a sense of being embarrassed by it, that it was an indulgence. The practical was held in such esteem. It made them too polite.’
‘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.’
‘But in this country, he saw, it was a kind of sport to belittle those with vision, to treat art with disdain. He wasn’t sure what benefit it brought, but it was something to do with this flattening out, this shuffle towards sameness, to a life lived on the surface, without any depth. Was that why people clung so hard to the edges of the country, their backs to its beating red heart? Were they afraid to look in, to hear the old stories, to see what was inscribed on their own hearts and land?’
You see what I mean though? There are so many passages that just reach out to you with their intent.
The other topic of prominence within this novel is the introduction of conscription for the Vietnam War, and the way this divided people. I found this particularly interesting and it’s kind of changed my view to a certain extent on the way the Vietnam War was being protested against by the Australian public. I can’t help but consider the weight that conscription must have added to the ill-sentiment that was already prevalent. Would the absence of conscription have led to a more respectful return for our troops that had served in this war? I love it when a novel can get my mind working like this.
‘They were 18 and 19 then, not old enough to vote. To get a passport, buy a house or a beer. But they could be forced into army fatigues, she thought now, biting her lip. Given a gun to kill boys just like them, boys they didn’t know, had never seen.’
I have no doubt that Shell is one of those novels we will see a lot of next year as it pops up on longlists and (hopefully) shortlists for awards. It is a literary work of fiction, I only point this out because some readers prefer not to dive into these, but if you’ve been on the fence about whether or not to read Shell, I urge you to just go for it. If you love a novel that gives you beautiful prose threaded with thought provoking content set against a background of real historical events, then Shell just might be the perfect read for you.
‘The passage of time, of life, from one realm to another, the traces left for others.’
About the Author:
Kristina Olsson is a journalist and the award-winning author of the novels Shell, In One Skin, and The China Garden, and two works of nonfiction, Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir and Kilroy was Here. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.
Published by Simon and Schuster Australia
Released October 2018