All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Shell by Kristina Olsson

on October 24, 2018

Kristina Olsson
Simon & Schuster AUS
2018, 368p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

In this spellbinding and poignant historical novel—perfect for fans of All the Light We Cannot See and The Flamethrowers—a Swedish glassmaker and a fiercely independent Australian journalist are thrown together amidst the turmoil of the 1960s and the dawning of a new modern era.

1965: As the United States becomes further embroiled in the Vietnam War, the ripple effects are far-reaching—even to the other side of the world. In Australia, a national military draft has been announced and Pearl Keogh, a headstrong and ambitious newspaper reporter, has put her job in jeopardy to become involved in the anti-war movement. Desperate to locate her two runaway brothers before they’re called to serve, Pearl is also hiding a secret shame—the guilt she feels for not doing more for her younger siblings after their mother’s untimely death.

Newly arrived from Sweden, Axel Lindquist is set to work as a sculptor on the besieged Sydney Opera House. After a childhood in Europe, where the shadow of WWII loomed large, he seeks to reinvent himself in this utterly foreign landscape, and finds artistic inspiration—and salvation—in the monument to modernity that is being constructed on Sydney’s Harbor. But as the nation hurtles towards yet another war, Jørn Utzo, the Opera House’s controversial architect, is nowhere to be found—and Axel fears that the past he has tried to outrun may be catching up with him.

As the seas of change swirl around them, Pearl and Axel’s lives orbit each other and collide in this sweeping novel of art and culture, love and destiny.

This is a beautiful looking book – my copy was is a hardback with this gorgeous dust jacket in soft pinks and out of focus shot of Sydney Harbour with the Opera House. The Opera House is such an iconic landmark – there are probably few who would recognise it, it’s synonymous with Sydney and that harbour and it’s played a huge role in how Sydney is marketed to the rest of the world. And this book comes at an interesting publication time because of late, the Sydney Opera House has been very much in the news because there was quite a public spat between Racing NSW who wanted to use it to promote a horse race, and the Opera House Trust, who did not want to use it as the world’s most expensive billboard. There was a very ugly radio interview, the NSW Premier intervened and overruled the Trust and a petition circulated gained 250,000+ signatures of the public who didn’t approve of it advertising a horse race either. Now the Opera House has been used before – it’s regularly coloured with lights to promote what are usually charitable causes or social messages (eg lit up pink for Breast Cancer Foundation, lit up red, white and blue after the French terrorist attack) and occasionally the government has stepped in for sporting reasons – the Wallabies, Australia’s Rugby Union team is one such instance. But this was different, given it was directly promoting an industry that some people regard as inhumane and responsible for gambling issues across the country. Even some who were horse racing fans weren’t into the idea of using the Opera House as a display for the highest bidder to promote whatever. And there were others who were tired of the Opera House being “for hoity toity snobs” and why shouldn’t they do something like this.

In my time, the Opera House has always been a beloved icon, even if people don’t use it for practical reasons. This book explores the construction of the Opera House, the change of government that shaped the fallout with architect and designer Jørn Utzon and the public opinions of the building that blew out in budget and time. Interestingly when I discussed this with my mother, I found that a bit of that resentment was obvious from her, as well as the perception that the Opera House was built and designed for rich people to do rich people things in. I’ve been to the Opera House quite a few times but I’ve never actually seen a performance there. I went as a child for school and I’ve delivered various interstate and overseas friends to Sydney Harbour to point it out and show them up close (because it really looks quite different when you are right up close to it, especially the tiling, etc). To me it’s something beautiful that I don’t actually really consider the practical application of. It is just…..there. Whether or not I actually use it for its intended purpose is irrelevant. It was built coming off the back of WWII though so perhaps people born in the generation after that have a very different opinion about things being useful and worth the money.

This book has its ups and downs for me. It was really interesting reading about the construction of the Opera House and the evolving feelings and public opinion at the time. As I said, it came in the 20yrs post WWII but Australia was already being dragged into another war – Vietnam. The conscription law plays a large role in this book. Main character Pearl is a journalist, a strong woman with a painful background. She’s been searching for her two brothers after the family was split up following the death of her mother when Pearl was 14 and her father was unable to cope with so many children. She wants to find them before the draft does. Pearl is an activist, a feminist and she’s being shoehorned because of her job where you’re supposed to remain neutral. She finds herself bumped from news to women’s and it’s stifling her. Pearl meets Alex Lindquist, a Swedish glassmaker in Sydney to work on the Opera House who is baffled by Australian attitudes to many things. Lindquist longs to meet Utzon, to connect with him and tell him he understand him.

It took me almost a week to read this book which is almost unheard of for me. I have to admit that I did struggle with it quite a bit. It’s a very slow burn, a methodical book. The writing is beautiful, it seems like each word and sentence is chosen with exquisite care but I often found my attention wandering away. It takes quite a while for Pearl and Alex to cross paths and then when they do I’m honestly not sure why they do? It wasn’t until probably the last 100-150 pages that I really felt like I was ‘getting’ what others were in praising this book so strongly. There were glimpses of brilliance – the way Olsson writes Pearl’s family is remarkable, the depth of her grief and guilt, the depiction of her father. And even though Pearl’s mother is deceased, she’s a strong presence in the book, she’s constantly in Pearl’s thoughts with her opinions. But the book did limp along a little and perhaps I’m just too impatient to appreciate the quietness of this storytelling, I can fully admit that. I wanted to love it, it’s such a beautiful cover and I’d heard lots of praise about it….but ultimately I just don’t think it was for me. I can see the beauty and merit in it and at times I felt myself almost being pulled right in, but it just never completely happened.


Book #179 of 2018


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