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Book description
For a first novel published in the 1930s by an Australian author, Christina Stead’s Seven Poor Men of Sydney is a very forward-thinking novel, though it almost never came to light at all. Initially rejected for 5 years prior to finally being picked up by publisher Peter Davies, even they didn’t want to take the risk on printing it as a debut, so released Stead’s book of stories The Salzburg Tales first. Most likely Stead’s Modernist approach and scent of Marxist themes throughout the novel were the cause of alarm, especially in a time when Australians had always revered the social realist form over all else, and Modernism hadn’t quite taken its place—not really finding that place until some decades later with Patrick White, a great admirer and in later years a friend of Stead. Some may even argue that Modernism still struggles to find readers there.On the surface this, much like most of Stead’s other novels from what I have seen, looks a very simple affair. The novel tells of seven working class men and one woman, all trying to make their way through the toils of life in Sydney in the 1920s. However, there is a lack of conventional plot to speak of, instead Stead chooses to concentrate and propel the novel forward through the personal and social relationships of its characters and their surroundings, where thematic patterns start to emerge and weave their way throughout each chapter. The most impressively handled and unexpected theme being that of the effects of war on the returning soldier, with the character Michael being arguably the most impressive creation as he struggles with the alienation and depression of a post-WWI Sydney. There are also a number of sections where characters will embark on long, maddened discussions about politics and social structures, the most effective of these in the conversations between the characters Joseph, a financially struggling printer, and Baruch, a jewish intellectual who is a prominent member of the local Marxist group. When these two are pontificating about the society and city that surrounds them, the pages move past very quickly, such is the way their words draw the reader in. Stead also uses techniques that remind of Virginia Woolf in many ways, where a character will look internally to evaluate their current plight in what Delia Falconer (who wrote the introduction to the latest edition of the book for Miegunyah Press) describes as “metaphysical soliloquies”. These techniques never seem to settle on the one character for too long, with the shift of focus from character to character throughout, allowing the reader a better insight into the minds and motivations of all of the novels main participants. And though the plot may seem thin on the surface, it’s what lies beneath and inside these people that makes this novel so remarkable.Stead also has a brilliant way of using lush, euphonious language to describe the setting of Sydney, in many ways, the true star of the novel. The reader gets a exceptional feel of the era and the city at the time, not just what it looked like, but Stead has a way of making you feel the settings, see the trees and the bay, feel the touch of the air on the skin. There’s an energy that moves through her descriptions that is often missing from many other novels:“The hideous low scarred yellow horny and barren headland lies curled like a scorpion in the sliding sea and sky. At night, house-lamps and ships’ lanterns burn with rousing shine, and headlights of cars swing over Fisherman’s Bay, In the day, the traffic in the village crawls along the skyline, past the lighthouse and signal station, and drops by cleft and volcanic gully to the old village that has a bare footing on the edge of the bay. It was, and remains, a military and maritime settlement.”The only real downside to this fantastic debut, is that at times, in between all the beautiful descriptions of the landscape and scenery and the interesting dialogues between these endearing characters, is that with the absence of plot, the novel does tend move into lulls which can move the reader’s interest through ebbs and flows. Overall though, this is a brilliant piece of work, and probably an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to read some of Stead’s work (a largely ignored author in her home country) before moving into the heavier and more well-known titles like The Man Who Loved Children or For Love Alone.
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