I stumbled upon the work of Kavita Bedford in a newspaper article. She’d written about the launch of her latest novel, Friends and Dark Shapes, but the article was just as much a love letter to Sydney – a city that, at times, refused to love her back.
Bedford wanted to write about Sydney in the way that authors have long written about their home towns. She wanted to capture a sense of the place, the shape of it, the way it builds and breaks people and the way it built and broke her.
She was raised in Sydney, reading the city novels of New York, Paris, London and Rome, devouring the works of Joyce, Salinger, Plath, Dickens and Ishiguro. From a young age, her aim was to create her own city novel, and to discover something about herself along the way.
Friends and Dark Shapes starts with a group of friends moving into a share house in Redfern, a trendy inner-city suburb in Sydney, with a long history tied to the indigenous rights movement.
The housemates are all eccentric in their own way. The protagonist is an aspiring writer, while one of the housemates is an aspiring musician and another is an aspiring actor, the last is simply an aspiring appreciator of art. They all share the tag ‘aspiring,’ along with the same age bracket of late twenties, and most importantly, a growing, gnawing feeling that they are becoming outsiders in their own city.
Kavita Bedford’s novel peels back the glamour of Sydney -a glamour that shines out of the coastal beaches and skyscrapers- and tries to understand the city for what it really is: a place of confusing contradictions. A place that is at once naturally beautiful and yet increasingly synthetic and artificial, laid back and yet racist, full of awe and yet full of exclusionary concentric social circles.
Thing is, this is a beautiful city, he says. But a lot of people say there is something off here and that it is difficult to connect with others.
Sydney, despite its beauty, has never made feel settled in my bones. Sure, its landscape informs my being, but it is not a city in tune with my internal rhythms.
This is an outdoor city, but we keep our desires, our doubts, our hearts hidden behind locked screen doors. We have parks, we have space, we gorge on natural beauty. Weekend coastal walks, beers by the beach, dog walks in the sun. People walk up and down the sandy coastline, but it is so difficult to read the emotional state of the city; people keep their feelings politely locked up. We joke a lot as though we know we’re on borrowed time, on borrowed land. But I wonder how can we learn to grieve for ourselves if our country doesn’t know how to grieve its own history?
The book centres on this idea of being an outsider in your own city. This is told through a series of vignettes. In one memorable exchange, the housemates visit a gallery opening and comment on how they don’t belong there, despite their various creative pursuits. Even in a setting where they should belong, they feel like an invisible wall is keeping them out. In many ways, they don’t how to play the part they are expected to play.
When we finally make it to the fringes of the room we see the walls are painted white and three paintings hang in a row. There are lines. Lines going up, lines going down, lines across and zig-zagging – it almost makes me dizzy. In one painting they are different shades of red. In another they are black and grey, and the final painting is done in the negative, so the canvas is black with pale white lines.
There is a beat. None of us know whether to scoff or if it is actually good.
I feel something between confused and nothing, says Niki. It feels like people keep prodding me to have important reactions to things, but more and more I just feel empty. She looks like she is about to cry, and she lets out a baleful hiccup.
In another memorable scene, Bedford explores the imperative placed on immigrants to tell a certain kind of story when they arrive in Australia. They need to fit into the media narrative, if they want their writing to be published at all. The protagonist, an aspiring journalist, meets with another young female writer in a bar to discuss this. The scene is filled with moral rage at a city unwilling to accept immigrants on their own terms.
They say talk about your experience, but then make sure it’s categorised as an opinion piece, so people really know that it has no factual bearing, and it is immediately minimised and has quotation marks around everything and a picture of you smiling like an idiot in the by-line.
At the same time, Bedford has a tendency of pulling too many punches. Whenever a criticism is made of Sydney – she immediately resorts to another character replying about privilege. Sure, there may be difficulties in living here, but are they worse than any other city? And look at the pretty beaches.
The value of Sydney is always presented in its Aesthetics. It is undeniably beautiful, but the book asks, is that enough?
The beauty, for its own sake, is viscerally depicted throughout. It’s in the box-row terrace houses of Glebe and Redfern. It’s in the golden dream of the coastline, with the beaches unfurling headland after headland as far as the eye can see. It’s in the understated glow of neon lights that awaken Chinatown at midnight and that parade through the central business district, revealing office workers in dimly lit bars, trying desperately to revive the prohibition-style booze-ups of the 1920s. It’s in the train rides home at three in the morning, returning to a share house filled with other restless souls, searching for an answer to a question that no one can quite articulate. Each desperately wanting a connection to someone. Each desperately wanting to be seen.
Bedford loses herself in these places. Her protagonist spends weekends chasing different ocean pools and lingering in the city’s festivals on long languishing summer nights.
It’s here, surrounded by beauty, that the protagonist finds time to think about loss. What does it mean to live in a city so beautiful, but to miss the one person you shared it with the most?
It’s a hard question to answer.
The protagonist has lost her father. The novel tracks this reconciliation with the past with an equally difficult attempt to build a future: the twin urges of understanding what happened and yet at the same time, trying to move on.
The day after my dad died, I went to the ocean pool at Bronte. Sydney is littered with ocean pools; they sit safely nestled away from the hazardous waves. The day was heavy and humid and it stuck to my skin as I waited for the summer storm to hit. The clouds thickened and darkened. The air swelled. The ocean churned.
I dived into the water. Sea urchins and anemones and small fish danced below me.
The personal tragedy of the protagonist is then mixed up with the tragedy of the city itself. Sydney is a city with a dark, unacknowledged past. A past filled with the deaths of the indigenous populations that used to live on its now celebrated coves and coastlines.
The city has yet to come to terms with this, deeper loss. The two stories play out in parallel in the book, with the book hinting that a reconciliation with the past is essential before one can build a future. It is not enough to have beauty, without understanding the past of those who appreciated it before you, and those who were killed in its shadow.
Niki and I walk back home from Redfern station. The painting on the wall across from Redfern station is in earthy colours and reads: 40, 000 years is a long time. 40, 000 years still on my mind.
The indigenous protesters near our house will be pushed out of their camp a couple of months later, and this block of land too will house new stories and lives.
The language of a city is all around us if we choose to read it. Call it what you want: hauntings, ghosts or memories, they are the same thing.
The novel reminds me of another love letter to Sydney, written by the architect Elizabeth Farrelly for her most recent book, called appropriately, Killing Sydney. Farrelly talks about how the history of the city is being demolished block by block, replaced by an indistinguishable modern architecture. It is the architectural equivalent of erasing the past, which is where the killing comes into it. How can we face a past that no longer even exists in physical space?
She writes of her first impression of the city in glowing terms:
I can still taste my first breath of Sydney. It was October 1978. I was 21. This place, with its shifting, salted air, tangled fabric, voluptuous topography, winding muscular flora and glorious chiaroscuro light, seemed to me the most thrilling, most picturesque, most romantic city on earth.
… I walked the length of Oxford Street, crusted with its tiny left-bank cafes and boutiques set around leafy courtyards; bespoke jewellers that glittered in the morning and mad milliners that glowed transparent in the dusk. For almost a week I lived in a century-old Balmain share house whose spindly legged balcony hung over the footpath like some snippet of Istanbul.
I loved Sydney deeply, unreservedly and at once. It seemed miraculous to me that such a place existed, combining the crabbiness of old Europe with a South-Pacific sinuosity. I felt I could explore its crannies and its nooks for a lifetime.
But the city that she loved increasingly came under threat from new development. The alleyways and small shops gave way to large apartment complexes and giant shopping malls. The texture of the city; the affordability – began to shift and change. She explains this shift in terms of an ecosystem, changing and adapting to different patterns.
Think of the city as a coral reef, a complex conglomerate of forms and spaces, designed – if designed is the word – to accommodate a vast plurality of life forms, some sedentary, some motile, in a myriad of niches. The reef is made of stuff. It’s an object, with form and texture and surface that collects sunlight and grows food but in many ways the purpose of those forms is to create the spaces between.
When we start demolishing large sections of the reef, we interrupt and destroy its history; obliterating character for smooth lines and skyscrapers – getting rid of the spaces between things.
From both Bedford and Farrelly I get the conclusion that beauty is not enough. If beauty is merely there to replace and hide the dark of the past, then what use is it really for? And who benefits from it?
Living in Sydney requires a greater reckoning than a mere appreciation for how beautiful the city can be.
It requires a reckoning with what that beauty hides, and who is excluded, and ultimately, a reckoning with what that hiding says about us as a people.
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