I was a bit shy about reading Sophie Cunningham’s Melbourne while on the tram – which is where I get most of my reading done – I was afraid that people might think I was a tourist. I mean, how often do you see a local getting around reading a book with their city’s name emblazoned on the cover?
But read it I did, nonetheless – in cafés, on the tram, while dawdling at the Parkville campus of Melbourne Uni or eating lunch at La Trobe. I was easily hooked, as it moved through a year in the life of the city, from the Black Saturday bush fires of 2009 to the following summer’s hailstorm, telling stories of the drains under Hawthorn, the Westgate Bridge Collapse, and the changed meanderings of the Yarra.
It is a brave enterprise, this mission of a series of books about our capital cities (Brisbane, Adelaide, Hobart and Sydney all have versions) – books that are neither history nor memoir; that are definitely non-fiction but which are difficult to categorise beyond this. Melbourne is closest to being a tribute: it is a story and a history in the service of one city, the author’s home city.
The book’s personal element is both its redeeming feature and its ultimate downfall. It is inevitable that a book like this will reflect the author’s own story and experience, and in this there is a beautiful honesty. A pure history of Melbourne would have its own biases; parts would have to be left out while others are told in more depth. Cunningham’s tribute to the city of her birth is, in its form, honestly and openly a biased and personal piece of work without being purely a personal story.
For me, the disappointment of Melbourne lies in that it is a story that made me feel excluded from the city. It is a very different city to that of The Slap, for example, in which the characters inhabit their own narrow version of the city yet the reader does not feel excluded. Perhaps the difference here lies in the novel’s ability to portray so many points of view; Melbourne, on the other hand, can portray only one.
I called myself a local in the first paragraph, but I’m not really – I have only been living here since 2009. In this time, and in all the years prior to that when I visited my grandmother, Melbourne is a city that has made me feel both included and excluded by turns. (I could generalise and, seeking a more poetic sentence, say, Melbourne is a city that makes you feel both included and excluded… but I do not wish to say ‘you’, here, for the experience is different for everyone.)
I began to feel included by this city when, after a short time of living here, I established a few regular haunts: sites of familiarity and comfort that allowed me to spring joyfully into the strange ‘rest’ of Melbourne, knowing that there were parts of town that would welcome me back, as though I belonged, with their familiar layout of streets and buildings, cafés and faces.
Yet she is a fickle lover, Melbourne, and when I did not give her – especially her inner-city heart – enough attention, she soon forgot me. So there are times when I swing the other way, to feeling that there is no place for me in this big and bustling city.
Perversely, Melbourne only increases this sense of dislocation. It reinforces elements of the city that one feels one should know or be a part of. But not everyone cycles down St Kilda Road; not everyone has Paul Kelly and Sian Prior in their circle of friends. Of course, Cunningham has been prominent in Melbourne’s literary scene for some time, so it is only natural that her friends would also be part of this scene. I cannot blame her for the choices she has made in writing this book, and there was much that I learnt and enjoyed in reading it. But nonetheless I can wish that between Cunningham’s story of a city in which I live, and my own experience and interpretation of it, there was something that brought me deeper instead of shutting me out.
Originally written 14 October 2011.