A novel take on the troubled birth of the Sydney Opera House

by Charlotte Grimshaw / 27 October, 2018
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Kristina Olsson.

Writer Kristina Olsson’s third novel is the story of Australian culture at a time of change.

Shell opens in November 1960 as Paul Robeson, the American singer and activist, performs for the workers at the building site of the Sydney Opera House.

Young journalist Pearl Keogh is moved by the singing and all it represents: “It wasn’t just the building or the place Robeson had sanctified, but the labour. The valour of it. The modest hearts of workers. In his songs, in the faces of the men, was every story she had ever tried to write.”

In this highly visual, vivid portrayal of 60s Sydney, with its wide harbour and skies and “opalescent light”, Pearl is a character intensely connected to her place and time. When the Government announces it will be drafting young men into the Vietnam War, she recognises the danger to her two younger brothers, whom she cared for after their mother’s death. Her guilt that she’d left them to pursue her career is now mixed with anxiety, and she begins a search, hoping to locate them and save them from the draft.

As a punishment for her opposition to the war, Pearl has been demoted to the women’s section of her newspaper. Sixties Sydney is a divided community, its repressive and insular nature just starting to be challenged by the anti-war movement and the social changes of the age. Jørn Utzon’s design for the Sydney Opera House has been accepted and work is underway, but conservative politicians, fired up by a pugnacious and myopic philistinism, are opposing the project and will make Utzon’s life a misery, denouncing his work and blocking its funding. Down at the construction site, young Swedish glass artist Axel Lindquist is creating a sculpture for the interior. He and Pearl meet and begin a relationship. Each is burdened by memory and loss. Pearl’s sadness at her mother’s early death is mixed with guilt for having lost contact with her brothers, whereas Axel is haunted by the mystery of his father’s role in World War II.

The Opera House, with its inspired architecture and uncanny beauty, stands as a symbol of the city’s debate with itself: to embrace a spectacular and daring vision, or reject it? Pearl marvels at the way Utzon, an outsider, has achieved harmony with the local environment. “She’d heard the first thing Utzon had done, before he thought about design, before he began to draw, was to consult the sea charts for Sydney Harbour. It made sudden sense: the building was marine more than earthly. From this angle, in this light, it was not a structure but an eruption from the sea. An act of nature rather than man, a disturbance.”

Australian writer Kristina Olsson’s third novel is the story of a culture at a time of change, and of individual lives touched by conflict. Conservatives reject Utzon’s foreign artistic vision at the same time as embracing a foreign war. Axel’s life is affected by his country’s history and his father’s participation in war. Pearl’s heart may yet be broken by war as the Government targets her brothers for Vietnam. Shell is a novel packed with ideas, rich in detail and dense with research. Initially as clear and delicate as liquid glass, the narrative gradually hardens to a congealed slowness until, beautiful, shapely and oddly static, it’s barely moving at all.

SHELL by Kristina Olsson (Simon & Schuster, $39.99)

This article was first published in the October 6, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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