Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


Reading the places we know

  • 29 January 2024
During the summer break I jumped into the third instalment of Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan series, Nice Try. Set in 1990 and written in 2000, it’s not a new novel. In some ways it lacks the fresh vitality of the first two Whelan mysteries. The plot is still fun and the language sharp. As much as anything it evokes my hometown, Melbourne, in ways I find delightful.

The text reminds how things change, and things stay the same. There’s a familiarity to the stretch of Brunswick St that runs along the housing commission flats just down from Gertrude St, and the forecourt of St Vincent’s hospital around the corner, where the smokers still congregate. Just as in the first novel, Stiff, where there are evocative descriptions of the stretch of Sydney Rd in the inner-north, opening out onto the boulevard of Royal Parade. The scenes capture something of the social contours of Melbourne.

In one of Martin Boyd’s Langton Quartet, which begins with The Cardboard Crown, the narrator notes that some people ‘lived at Brighton for the sea, or Kew for the river, but for society, one had to live in Toorak’. Written in the 1950s and set in the late 19th century, something of Melbourne is expressed. Just as when the young heroine ‘escapes’ Presbyterian Ladies’ College in Henry Handel Richardson’s turn-of-the-century The Getting of Wisdom and runs through a city arcade that I still walk through from time to time today. It feels like I am connecting with my own history, the story of my community, in these moments.


'When place comes alive in writing, it is a delight. When it’s a place that has shaped you, or continues to shape you, then your own mythology expands.'  

The Australian text that most strongly evokes place as a character for me is, ironically, set in a city I’ve never been to. But in David Malouf’s Johnno, Brisbane is vivid. As the titular character comes in and out of focus through the reminiscence of the narrator, Brisbane of the 1950s is very much alive. There’s a sense of nostalgia for a place that is no more, but within that lies a recognition that the city has helped raise the narrator, framed his life, and maybe that of the author too.

A few years ago, I visited Western Australia, and driving south of Perth I recognised just where Tim Winton was writing about. The fictional coastal town of Angelus, which appears in The Turning and Breath, alive on