2013, 295 p.
There’s a special pleasure in reading a book set in your own home town. You recognize streets and places, and you paint them in your mind with the descriptions of weather that any book about Melbourne will provide, because it is Melbourne! But in this case, my pleasure in reading this book was multiplied because I’ve even been in the flats that give the book its title and also experienced the feeling of other world-ness and even superiority of being in such an exotic, hidden-in-plain-sight place that the narrator of the book describes so well.
‘Cairo’ is located directly across the road from the Exhibition Buildings and Melbourne Museum in Nicholson Street. You could drive past it a million times and not notice it. It’s a C-shaped set of two-storey flats that surround a lush, chaotic jungle of greenery. There are some excellent before-and-after photographs at Fitzroyalty blog. You can click on the photos below to enlarge them.
We had a friend who lived in one of the units closest to Nicholson Street. It was a tiny flat, although I think that it might have been larger than these ones on real estate agents’ pages here and here. As it happens, he was an artist as well. My overwhelming impression was one of light, flooding through the large windows, suffused through the green of the leaves outside. It was as if Cairo was a secret place, with the world rattling past outside, oblivious.
In Womersley’s Cairo this is very much the way that young Tom Button found it too, shifting down to Melbourne Uni from a small country town and taking up residence at Cairo in a small flat formerly owned by his now-deceased aunt Helen. He never did make it to uni. Instead, he fell under the spell of his older, more exotic neighbours, and their round of parties, gallery openings and cafes. In this, the book is very much a coming-of-age novel where, on the cusp of adulthood, other peoples’ lives and relationships are laid out for the observing and there is almost a sense of disbelief that space is being opened up for you to join in as well. Drinking too much; falling in love with unattainable women; the fascination with heroin; the lack of responsibility of being eighteen again – they’re all here.
The second, very Melbourne theme revolves around the theft of Picasso’s Weeping Woman painting from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986. The “Australian Cultural Terrorists” claimed responsibility for the heist of the gallery’s recent $1.6 million acquisition, demanding increased arts funding and dubbing the benighted Arts Minister, Race Matthews, the “minister of Plod”, “a tiresome old bag of swamp-gas” and a “pompous fathead”. There was poor old Patrick McCaughey in his bow-tie, frantic at its loss, then beaming away again when it was returned a fortnight later, wrapped in brown paper in a locker at Spencer Street railway station.
I’ve read several of Womersley’s books (The Low Road and his more recent Bereft). Their settings vary markedly, but there are similarities in their themes of escape and masculinity.
I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book- I just wanted it to go on and on (even though I predicted the ending). Like the middle-aged narrator, looking back on this period of his youth, I felt an affection tinged with deep anxiety for the lad. It’s a beautiful, authentic depiction of Melbourne and the 1980s, told with love.
My score: 10/10 (but hey, I’m a middle-aged Melbourne woman who grew up with all this)
Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.
Read because: I’m a middle aged Melbourne woman who grew up with all this.