‘Water Under the Bridge’ by Sumner Locke Elliott

1977, 367 p.

After I finished reading this book, I got to thinking about the marvel of reading: that somehow those printed words on the page become an internal experience of seeing, hearing, even smelling that somehow the reader generates for herself in her own head, and yet can be shared with others who have read the same book.  It was only when I arrived at bookgroup last night, fresh from finishing reading it the night before, that I realized that my fellow book-groupers felt very much the same way.  Perhaps there’s something special about this book.

Water Under the Bridge is a very consciously plotted book.  It begins and ends with fireworks and a party- at the opening to celebrate the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932 and at the end to celebrate the Sydney Opera House some forty years later.  In the opening party scene, he introduces all the main characters: the wealthy, socialite Mazzini family, Neil Atkins the restless and dissatisfied actor, the rather pathetic middle-class Flagg sisters, Maggie McGhee the journalist and Archie Ewers, an insufferable little bully.  At first this deluge of characters seems overwhelming, but they soon distinguish themselves one from another as he traces through their trajectories in the four parts of the novel. The author was well-known as a screen writer and playwright, and you sense how well this book would translate onto the screen (where, indeed, it did end up as a miniseries).  His characters do veer a little too close to caricatures but he  gives them enough depth to rescue them from this fate.  Somehow, in a book with many characters, it’s hard to label any of them as “minor”.   He has a keen ear for language, and is highly attuned to class distinctions in our so-called classless Australian society.

Looking at the book 35 years after it was written, it is a good social history- perspicaciously so.  His descriptions of the opening up of experience for women and gay men during World War II Australia fit in very much with the current historiography, and his marshalling of small details from his own memories and experience is impressive.  It evoked many other books for me-  George Johnston’s My Brother Jack, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby– and it didn’t suffer by comparison with these literary heavy-weights.

I’ve only read one other Locke Elliott- Careful He Might Hear You, and I don’t know why I waited so long to read another one.  One day I’d like to read his biography too- Sumner Locke Elliot Writing Life.  The introduction to the thesis on which the biography is based is available here and this review of the biography gives a hint of the man: gay, expatriate, brought up by his aunts- all themes that he mined heavily in his fiction.  I waited twenty years between reading my first and second Sumner Locke Elliott.  I won’t wait that long to read my third.

My rating:  9/10

Sourced from:  CAE bookgroups

Read because: it was the October book for my bookgroup.

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8 responses to “‘Water Under the Bridge’ by Sumner Locke Elliott

  1. This sounds wonderful!

  2. Good choice by your book group. The author needs more recognition.

    • Yes- I agree. He won the Miles Franklin, and a Patrick White award of some sort and yet he’s largely overlooked.

  3. BTW Do you still have the book, Janine? I’d like to add this edition with this cover to the database at GoodReads, but I need the publisher and the ISBN to do that.

  4. Pingback: My best reads for 2012 | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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