On Brunswick Ground – Catherine de Saint Phalle

On Brunswick Ground

On Brunswick Ground is a contemporary novel set in Melbourne. It draws on the violent death of journalist Jill Meagher in 2012 to explore the fear that her death evoked in local women afraid to walk the streets. The story is told through in first person by an unnamed narrator who is dealing with the absence of her partner Jack.

The story follows her around local haunts, meeting radio presenter Bernice who in her late 30s has decided the only way to have a baby is with IVF and a sperm donor. They drink at Sarah’s bar, a woman derailed by the reappearance of her daughter Mary who has converted to Islam and wears a burqa. By day the narrator works with Mitali as a gardner. All of the women are dealing with unresolved grief or loss.

The story moves slowly, revealing gradually the source of each woman’s pain. The setting is painstakingly and beautifully described with the menace of the recent murder a haunting backdrop. I found de Saint Phalle’s writing very fresh and some of her metaphors were lovely, like ‘A cocktail of seasons can whisk around in a single day’ as the perfect description of Melbourne’s unpredictable weather.

But you can overdo the metaphors and coming across them at a rate of about two a page was too clever for me and really diluted the power of her writing and at times they just didn’t work.

I mostly enjoyed the extreme close point of view and the slow meandering through these women’s lives but at times that too was overdone and I wished for some more narrative pace. But the development of each character and their conversations were very strong and convincing. I did tire a bit of the unusual tragedy that seemed to have befallen every character though. The number of mothers, fathers and so on who had died mysterious deaths in the outback and and the like detracted from the modern realism that de Saint Phalle is portraying. It just felt too unbelievable that nearly every character had endured unusual tragedies. But I particularly liked the reveal of the mysterious Jack’s absence and also the source of Mary’s decisions. But the lives of the other characters were wrapped up just a bit too neaty for my liking.

This is a lovely story if you enjoy beautiful poetic writing, wise insight into the way women live today and a slow-moving story that puts its characters lives under microscope.

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