Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Sydney Bridge Upside Down
By David Ballantyne
Text Publishing, $32
Reviewed by Nicky Pellegrino

Australian publishers Text are developing a knack for rediscovering forgotten 20th century classics. Last year they revived interest in Australian writer Madelaine St John and her excellent The Women in Black. Now it’s the turn of David Ballantyne an NZ author and journalist who died back in 1986.
His curious and neglected literary masterpiece Sydney Bridge Upside Down, originally published in 1968, starts out feeling like a memoir of a golden Kiwi childhood. Its narrator Harry lives in a small bay on the edge of the world. It’s the summer holidays, his mother is away, there’s a cupboard full of home-made ginger beer and all there is to do is have adventures with his boyhood friends. There are clues that things will soon turn sinister but it’s easy enough to ignore them at first and settle into what seems like a classic coming-of-age story set in a bygone age of innocence.

It takes a while to realise that Harry is an unreliable narrator, not just because he’ s a boy and his view of the world is limited, but because he tries to portray himself in the best possible light. If he “bops” “dongs” and “puts the hammerlock” onto his friend Dibs that’s because he deserves it.  His adolescent lust for his visiting older cousin, the flirtatious Caroline, seems reasonable enough. His adventures appear innocent at first.
Slowly Ballantyne builds a sense of threat. Harry’s favourite forbidden playground in an old abandoned meatworks, his unusual outlet for his sexual energy, his paranoia about the snoopy girl next door, all layer on the gothic atmosphere. Gradually we see the real Harry, the local bully, the sinister boy with darkness in his heart. But still it’s a shock when Ballantyne takes us right inside the character’s head and we begin trying to understand what’s really going on.

This new edition of the novel contains an introduction by Kate De Goldi. She talks of the story’s “haunting quality”, it’s “power” and it’s “beauty”. She exhorts the reader to pay attention to “what is not on the page” and describes the book as a thriller. It’s not of course, at least not in the modern sense. Loose ends aren’t neatly tied, questions are left unanswered. And yet more than 40 years after it was written this piece of fiction doesn’t feel dated. To me it has a Catcher in the Rye quality and a deceptive simplicity of style that would see it being marketed as Young Adult fiction if it were newly released today. It absolutely deserves to have been dusted off and served up to a new generation of readers.
Oh and the name? Sydney Bridge Upside Down  is a sway-back horse not a feat of engineering.

Nicky Pellegrino, in addition to being a succcesful author of popular fiction, (her latest The Italian Wedding was published in May 2009 while her next, Recipe for Life is due from Orionnext week), is also the Books Editor of the Herald on Sunday where the above piece was first published on 21 March.  

Footnote 2:
The republishing of Sydney Bridge Up side Down has awakened interest in the late David Ballantyne and his writing.It is timely to note then that the excellent, most-readable biography, After the Fireworks - A life of David Ballantyne by Bryan Reid (Auckland University Press) is still in print - $44.99

This about the biography from AUP's website:

After the Fireworks is the biography of a New Zealand journalist and novelist who believed he 'never really made it' and whose fiction has been too quickly forgotten (he died in 1986). He stands with Ronald Hugh Morrieson as one of the first local novelists to escape from the narrow limits of critical realism and provincial inadequacy.
This is a very readable account of his life by a friend who knew him well and it is also a picture of the worlds of journalism and literary endeavour in the postwar period. It shows his brilliant early start with The Cunninghams, his friendship with Sargeson, the mystery of his interrupted career and the surprise of his sudden late flowering. This sensitive workmanlike book will help to reawaken wider interest in this important writer: his two novels The Cunninghams and Sydney Bridge Upside Down are already seen as classics and his two last novels are of considerable interest.
About the author
Eighteen years after author David Ballantyne's death, his lifelong friend, Bryan Reid, has written his life in an attempt to redress the critical balance and to try to find some reasons for the failure of Ballantyne to achieve the acclaim he deserved in his own country. Bryan Reid was born in Auckland, New Zealand, in 1926 and is now an Australian citizen living in Melbourne. He has three children, all living in Australia, five grandchildren and two great-grandsons. Most of his siblings and their children still live in New Zealand. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School and, briefly, in 1953, at Canterbury University College, on an adult matriculation.

He has 'read a lot of books', and has been a professional writer for more than 60 years but could, he says, 'be described as a late finisher, rather than a late starter, in the literary stakes.' 'I wrote my first book when I was aged 19. Fifty-eight years later, this is my second book. The first, written while I was yachting writer for the Auckland Star, was The History of the Sanders Cup, a celebrated New Zealand sailing contest.' He worked as a journalist on newspapers and magazines first in New Zealand and then in Australia, 1949&endash;1952 and in 1959.
He then spent more than 30 years as a public relations consultant in Australia, largely editing house journals for corporate and other institutional clients. Bryan Reid and David Ballantyne both joined the Auckland Star as cadet reporters on June 14, 1943. It was Ballantyne's 19th birthday and Reid was just 16. They remained close friends, although separated intermittently, Ballantyne in New Zealand and Britain and Reid in Australia. Among Reid's particularly vivid memories of Ballantyne are their years among the writers and artists in post-war Wellington, and particularly of the wild life at 301 Willis Street, where Ballantyne lived while he was working on the Southern Cross newspaper and writing his novels.

Footnote 3:
Read Kate de Goldi's story, Sydney Bridge Redux, NZ Listener Jan.30, 2010.

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