I’m preempting tomorrow’s meeting of the BookWorms by posting about the first chapter of Delia Falconer’s Sydney here tonight. The trouble is, as I approach the end of the first chapter, ‘Ghosting’, after the foreword, I am cross and annoyed and just want to get through the next three pages, at which point I sincerely hope something, either the approach or my attitude, will change, otherwise I may not make it through the rest of the book.
The gist of my negative response to Sydney thus far is not so much that it asserts an ineffable insecurity, melancholy, and edginess to Sydney’s character, but that this quality is available only to the born and bred Sydney-sider while everyone else is mistakenly convinced of its good-looks and brashness. Or at least I think that’s the gist of my difficulty; the first chapter is constantly shifting in a way that perhaps is meant to allude to the ghosts of its title, but feels to me like an attempt to evade scrutiny of the claims it makes for Sydney (as well, indeed, as an exercise in myth-making that Sydney, especially, doesn’t need).
Whenever I think of Sydney and now perhaps Sydney, I recall a phrase in a poem by Yu Ouyang: ‘…self-centred Sydney…’ (When I first read that I felt a bolt of recognition.) Following that line of thought, I also recall a critical piece on Yu’s work which noted the way he sought to deflect criticism of his work within his work, leaving the critical reader no way to engage with his writing without confirming the author’s worst predictions. So, in this instance, as someone who has only visited Sydney, any criticism I make is only confirmation of my outsider status, of failing to ‘get’ the authentic Sydney.
I want to question some of Falconer’s assertions about the uniqueness of Sydney’s character as it arises from the violence of European settlement. Yes, such displacement will leave its mark, but doesn’t that legacy belong everywhere Europeans arrived and subjugated indigenous populations? Just as Falconer admits that jacarandas bloom elsewhere in Australia, then other cities have secret emotional lives, bursts of wild life in urban areas, and underground streams buried in feats of colonial engineering. It’s as though Falconer is making claims for Sydney that are effectively about Australia without taking her eyes off the harbour she admits is over-celebrated. Self-centred Sydney, indeed.
I will press on.