30 Days in Sydney: A Wildly Distorted Account by Peter Carey (2000) 248 p.
Peter Carey was born in country Victoria and raised in Melbourne, but it’s clear from many of his novels that his heart truly belongs to Sydney – even though, as he explains in the opening to this book, “I did not come to live in Sydney until I was almost forty and even then I carried in my baggage a typical Melbournian [sic] distrust of that vulgar crooked convict town.” (The fact that he misspells Melburnian is perhaps the best proof that he is a proper Sydneysider.) Carey ultimately settled in New York City, but 30 Days in Sydney – part travelogue, part memoir – details a month he spent revisiting his adopted hometown in 2000, the city’s Olympic year.
In both fiction and non-fiction, Carey has a way of beautifully capturing a place. I’ve been to Sydney for perhaps three cumulative weeks in my life and can’t really claim to know it, but the way Carey describes the place makes it stand out in my head as clear as anywhere I’ve ever been: the lush subtropical heat, the parks of palm and fig trees, the huge sandstone cliffs along the coast, the “great height and dizzy steel” of the bridge, and the dazzling expanse of the cerulean harbour itself, the greatest natural anchorage in the world, branching into a thousand secret coves and inlets.
Much of the book is fictionalised; Carey gives all his friends false names, and their conversations have that same wonderful patter as the characters in his novels; rambunctious people ear-bashing, arguing, cutting across each other – garrulous figures who never fail to say what they think. Like Mark Twain, Carey is a writer who will never let the truth get in the way of a good story. One of my favourite stories in 30 Days in Sydney concerns a pair of houses on Pittwater, a semi-wild part of Sydney’s urban fringe, where Carey and some of his friends lived for a number of years. In 1994, during a dreadful bushfire season (and after Carey had moved to New York), those two old houses full of so many wonderful shared memories came under threat as the fire front came down the peninsula:
With the red glow of fires all about them, Sheridan and Jack had stayed there one last night. They cooked a final meal, and at half past four in the morning, as the fire jumped the last break and spread in a great whoosh across the crowns of eucalypt, they boarded Jack’s rowing boat, pulled off into the bay, and watched the houses burn.
A moving image – probably embellished, but who cares?
Carey touches many other things throughout the book: Aboriginal dispossession, the corruption of the New South Wales elite, the experiences of early settlers, the Rum Rebellion, the Blue Mountains, sailing (including the dreadful storm of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart yacht race, in which six people died) and quite a lot more, considering it’s a short book.
Actually it’s 248 pages, but I read it in two days, since Carey is so wonderfully readable. I imagine you’d get less out of it if you weren’t at all familiar with Sydney, but I loved it.