Tasmanian author, Heather Rose's seventh novel The Museum of Modern Love won the 2017 Stella Prize, the 2017 Christina Stead Prize and the 2017 Margaret Scott Prize.
Bruny, set in a near-future Tasmania, is an abrupt fictional left turn from her internally focused last novel. Rose's global setting is one in which the isolationist, neo- conservative US President, presumably Trump, has won a second term, there is now a King of England and Brexit has occurred, leaving "the Brits, a basket case".
China and Australia are now much more strongly aligned. As part of the Belt and Road project, the Chinese are building a $2 billion bridge in Tasmania between Hobart and Bruny Island. Many, however, wonder, why would the Chinese invest in a bridge which seems to have no immediate commercial viability. Can Bruny Island become "the new Cote d'Azur", as the Tasmanian government's marketeers believe?
Early in the novel, an underwater bomb brings down part of the nearly completed bridge. The Chinese, with the agreement of the Tasmanian government, fly in 289 Chinese workers, "who all put the Chinese Communist Party above their own interests", aiming to complete the bridge by its original deadline.
As Federal and Tasmanian investigations are launched into the explosion, 56-year-old United Nations conflict resolution specialist, Astrid Coleman, is hired to mediate the not inconsiderable tensions over the bridge. The Chinese entrepreneurs and the Tasmanian and Federal governments are on one side, while the BFG, the Bruny's Friends Group, the Greens and the unions are on the other.
Astrid, who left Tasmania when she was 18, is a member of the powerful Tasmanian Coleman family. Her twin brother JC is the Liberal Premier, and her older half-sister Max is the leader of ALP. There is lingering family resentment that Astrid hasn't returned from New York for years to see her father with dementia and her mother shrunken with cancer.
Family tensions will parallel the political tensions. Astrid is still bitter about her marriage breakup after her academic husband Ben left her for a younger woman. Ben had "watched a lot of women rise on the academic ladder while his own career stalled " and clearly resents Astrid's career success. Astrid reflects, "it's men who created the violence and viciousness of the world".
Astrid wonders if "we are all pawns" in the politics behind the bridge building. After all, "Bruny was a very out of the way place for China to want to connect to", and "The Chinese Communist Party espoused very different values and loyalties to those held by the everyday Australian". Nonetheless, she is willing to take her brother's word as to the ultimate benefits to Tasmania of the bridge construction.
When, however, a Chinese worker is killed during the rebuilding of the bridge, and his death is covered up by the Chinese and the Tasmanian governments, Astrid determines to find out the truth behind the Chinese largesse. No easy task, given the politics and money involved, and in a Tasmania where the government has passed a law that" anyone communicating an opinion harmful to the government or government activities received a $5000 fine".
The truth, when ultimately revealed, of the Tasmanian/ Chinese relationship will be too far-fetched for most readers, but it does allow Astrid to unearth secret political deals and family skeletons, and the opportunity, perhaps too conveniently, to find a new love.
Astrid's investigative journey allows Rose to use her, and other main characters, as a mouthpiece to expound widely on numerous issues, including Australian politics, the rise of populism, climate change, religious extremism, social inequality, corporate power, and foreign investment in Australia, particularly Chinese "chequebook colonialism". These soapbox-like declarations don't help the narrative flow. Nor do they assist the plot, except perhaps, the nature of Chinese expansionism, unless it represents the overall global nature of fractured politics.
Astrid's investigative journey allows Rose to use her, and other main characters, as a mouthpiece to expound widely on numerous issues, including Australian politics and the rise of populism.
A few examples of the soapbox : John Howard is "a little man, a mean-spirited tracksuit wearing Conservative Prime Minister, who . . . persuaded an optimistic nation to become pessimistic". Rupert Murdoch has left " a toxic legacy . . .dumbing down the national conversation in the US, UK and Australia to three- word headlines and shock jock commentary". Journalism in Australia "had all swung right and into personal opinion. And even the ABC . . . had been forced to adapt. So many of the intelligent programmes had been cut". One may agree or disagree with such statements, but the issue is the numerous placements in the novel's framework. Canberra doesn't escape. Max states, "Canberra operates in a bubble. No traffic jams or parking problems. Everyone can afford to send their kids to private school. It's a group of intelligent, affluent, middle-class people totally removed from life in the rest of Australia".
Rose has said that Bruny is part political thriller, part satire, part love story, part family story. These diverse elements, supplemented by the overwhelming political messages, never coalesce successfully, but there's no doubt Bruny will arouse much passionate discussion, not least in Tasmania.
- Bruny, by Heather Rose. Allen & Unwin. $32.99.