7 March 2023

The Canberra Bookshelf: nostalgic yearning for things lost and found

| Barbie Robinson
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Bellevue book cover

Alison Booth’s Bellevue is a beautifully written potboiler and dark psychological thriller. Photo: Supplied.

This month’s diverse books are united by the broad theme of lost and found.

First to Peter Edgar’s Counter Attack: Villers-Bretonneux, April 1918 (Big Sky Publishing, Australia, 2020/Australian Army Campaign Series – 27, cover image AWM ART03028).

This is a meticulously researched military history of the counterattack at Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918, but it is not merely an account of the events leading up to and including this conflict. It is written with heart, presenting personal and professional portraits of the military leaders who were there.

The author’s motivation was to present the facts as they are known and documented without regard to previous interpretations or legends that have arisen over the decades. Thus, he debunks some myths. Some readers may find this controversial, but Edgar merely points to the recorded facts. The crucial role of Sir William Glasgow and his men is one such.

The conclusion of the book points to another motivation for the author – he reminds us that 1200 Australian soldiers gave their lives in the recapture of the town of Villers-Bretonneux on 24 April, 1918, and that they are buried nearby.

It is this loss to which I refer, along with the finding of truth in reporting this campaign. The book is an homage in the same way that the Australian National Memorial in the Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery is, atop a hill overlooking the French countryside, the hill not far from Amiens, known in 1918 as Hill 104.

Counter Attack book cover

Peter Edgar’s Counter Attack: Villers-Bretonneux April 1918 is a valuable, detailed war history. Photo: Supplied.

Alison Booth writes exquisite literary fiction, astutely observing the nature and behaviour of her believable, often flawed characters.

In Bellevue (Red Door [Ember Press UK], 2023, cover design by Clare Connie Shepherd), the lead is recently widowed Clare Barclay, who inherits a property in the Blue Mountains from her husband’s Aunt Hilda.

Clare is reeling from the loss of her husband in a shooting accident but she also discovers that he has put them into such debt that the family home is lost. Bellevue has been a sanctuary in the past and becomes one again as she tries to nurse her wounds while investigating the mysterious events surrounding her husband’s last days.

In the Blue Mountains community, Clare finds a group of like-minded conservationists and when Bellevue comes under threat from developers, they band together in true 1970s style to launch a protest movement. Clare’s teaching and writing skills prove useful and she finds some of her old self returning.

READ ALSO The Canberra Bookshelf: memoir, family messages and a cheery termite

With the all-too-familiar pairing of shonky real estate and corrupt politicians bubbling along in the understory, the author cleverly engineers both a personal and a social finding of self. The result is a satisfying blend of beautifully written social commentary and dark psychological thriller.

Samantha Tidy’s textual story and Susannah Crispe’s visual story come together perfectly in Cloudspotting (Windy Hollow Books, Australia, 2023). This is a gentle tale of a father and daughter who, while the rest of the family still sleep, go out in their boat crabbing in the dark chill of early morning.

Cloudspotting book cover

Cloudspotting is filled with gentle nostalgia. Photo: Supplied.

With the daylight come the clouds, a source of wonder and imagination as shapes are defined into a fire-breathing dragon, an elephant, a hippo and a tiger. Crabs are caught and taken home to cook for a family lunch and then the parents have a siesta on the couch.

As an adult reader, this story fills me with a sense of nostalgia, a deep yearning for things lost to much of the busy modern world – time for weekend family lunches, for afternoon sleeps and cloud gazing, for precious hours of simple activity with a parent and dunking biscuits in tea.

A child will, however, delight in the comradeship and unspoken understanding, the passage from darkness to light, the dreamy worlds of cloud and sea, in watching the magic of crabs turning from blue to red when cooked – illustrated in the striking endpapers.

Thank goodness that things apparently lost can be found again in literature.

Barbie Robinson is co-founder and a content creator for Living Arts Canberra, a not-for-profit media outfit supporting arts and community in the Canberra region and books worldwide through its website, podcast interviews and a 24/7 internet radio station.

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