Shell: Revealing the inner murmur

Shell is the latest novel by Australian author Kristina Olsson.

We won’t cut coal,” Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was reported as saying to The Australian last week. Or something to that effect. In typical Oz style, The Australian has a hard paywall. I somehow slipped behind it on the first link-click, but now can’t go back and double check. They not gonna get any of my ronds.

But The Guardian confirms the Morrison government’s stance. For context, Morrison made his pro-coal statement the day the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released what is colloquially called the 1.5 report, which states we need to move to a zero-coal world, and soon soon, if we want to prevent the catastrophe that will occur if we overshoot 1.5ºC global warming. Globally, we need to cut coal by 45% of 2010 levels by 2030 – that’s in 12 years – and be rid of it entirely by 2050.

So, basically, Morrison is giving the world the middle finger. Which makes him a dick. In fact, if Australia had a personality, it would be a dick. That’s actually a line from one of Rob van Vuuren’s comedy shows. And he knows. He’s been there. I have never had a desire to. Well, not since I got over my childhood fascination with kangaroos, which was decades before Rolf Harris was found to be a paedophile. North Korea is higher up on the list of desirable travel destinations. How a society gets by within the goosestep of enforced conformity seems more interesting than a society that voluntary places itself beneath the bureaucratic short-sightedness of petty conservative white men. Yet I was only about a third of the way through Kristina Olsson’s new novel, Shell, when I realised that the Sydney Opera House is a fascinating building, and worth a pilgrimage. But, Australia.

However, such is the delicate perception Olsson brings to the period of the building’s construction – and it was a construction mired in controversy – and her insight into the damaged characters whose lives intersect because of its existence, that I might be amenable to a trip to Sydney. I mean, if someone offered. And on the proviso I wouldn’t have to deal with any Australians. Except Olsson. And Geoffrey Rush. They can come along on a boat skippered by a former fisherman from North Korea so we can take in the Opera House from all its wonderful different angles.

Because the way Olsson tells it, it’s worth dealing with Australian customs to see it. In Shell, the building is almost a character in its own right, constantly rewritten by whoever is looking at it. It’s a foreign character, for it was birthed by a Dane, the architect JørnUtzon, who caught a lot of flak from the Ozzies because, Olsson suggests, it scared them.

He saw it plainly in the derision of Utzon in the papers, the growing clamour of voices mocking his vision. As if they were ashamed of a building that might reveal them, the soaring shapes of their dreams, the true interior of their hearts. As if they were afraid of grandeur.”

Clearly Olsson is critical of her countrypeople’s desire to fit the mould, for she is half Swedish and not averse to the self-reflection that comes from long cold winters. Her oblique critique is mostly voiced through Axel Lindquist, who is Swedish and a glass maker, and finds himself in Sydney after uncharacteristically offering his services to Utzon and to his surprise being commissioned to make a work to hang in the Opera House lobby. Axel is from Småland, where what land there is, is surrounded by “plates of water, glass-like”. He has a poet’s eye. He comes from a place where “there were no hard certainties, no one way of looking. Only a way of seeing.” And thus he sees what lies beneath the everyday, the layers, but is frustrated in his effort to see what came before; the paths and traces of the aboriginal people. The absence of them is a muted reminder of the small continent’s genocide.

The other main character is Pearl Keogh, who is an Australian and as Olsson admits in her postscript, represents her mother’s side. Pearl is a journalist exiled, much to her chagrin, to the women’s section of her newspaper as punishment for having being photographed participating in an anti-war demonstration. Because in 1965, which is when Shell is set, Australia was starting to draft its young men so they could go join America’s horrific folly in Vietnam. Pearl appears to be more pragmatic than Axel, but doesn’t toe the mainstream conservative line. Although Olsson doesn’t say so – the seduction of her novel is that it doesn’t make any statements, rather allows your imagination to draw your own conclusions – Pearl’s lifestyle was probably scandalous, but being a damn good journalist meant petty bullshit could entertain itself.

Like Axel, she is wounded by parental loss. Both of them lug sacks of guilt, and how they shoulder this largely self-made burden, and stumble under its weight, is what informs the poetry of this novel, in the metaphorical and literal sense. For Olsson’s writing straddles the line between poetry and prose. Plays hopscotch across it. She proves poetry can be conjured under the bleaching southern sun even as she makes Axel wonder how it is possible.

Surely this endless equatorial light broke through everything. Poetry couldn’t be possible here; the air was too thin for it; the sun too hot. How could poetry be made and survive in such brutal clarity? This wasn’t a place of poets but of the body. He’d written as much to his mother on the back of a postcard – some forgotten beach, its surfers and bikinis, the shimmer of tanned flesh dulling the sky and the ocean behind them.”

Similes are also scattered across the pages, sometimes diminishing the view: “The wide sweep of the Pacific like a kinked cloth before him.” And she’s occasionally caught by cliché: “She … laughed like a drain.” But they are a minor irritation, soothed by the plenitude of evocation: “He had arrived in Sydney as summer was tipping over.”

Beyond the poetry contained in the writing and the depth of the characters, the further beauty of Shell lies in its underlying metaphor; the idealistic ambition to atone, and through atonement create something that soars above the prosaic to serve as a beacon of what we are capable of. To resist the pull of mediocrity, the everyday urging to take the easiest course and be less generous, less loving, less self-aware, less committed to greatness. To be just like everyone else.

To be able to see this drag, and resist it by going inwards towards grace, is Olsson’s gift. A gift generous enough for to cross the Indian Ocean.

Shell is published by Simon & Shuster UK, distributed in SA by Jonathan Ball Publishers.

Kristina Olsson is the author of Boy, Lost: A Family Memoir, and Kilroy was Here. She live in Brisbane

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