- Book: Shell
- Location: Sydney
- Author: Kristina Olsson
It is 1960 – the Sydney Opera House is halfway through its construction and Australia has recently introduced conscription to the Vietnam war – two events that are pivotal to this novel. Jorn Utzon, the architect of the iconic building, is facing increasing criticism and the country is divided in its opinion on conscription.
Against this turbulent background, Pearl Keogh, a young journalist has been relegated to writing for the women’s pages of her newspaper after she has been spotted involved in a protest against the war. Pearl has grown up with a social conscience and a well-developed guilt complex, following a troubled childhood. After her mother’s death, Pearl’s father retreated into alcohol dependency and Pearl and her younger siblings are sent to a children’s home. Pearl has become estranged from her two young brothers and, feeling guilt over her abandonment of them when they were teenagers, and determined to help them avoid being drawn into the war, she sets about hunting them down. Axel Lindquist, a glass sculptor from Sweden, is in Sydney at the same time, working on a sculpture for the opera house. He becomes obsessed with finding Jorn Utzon. Axel, like Pearl, has a troubled past and his search for the reclusive architect is connected to his own lifelong search for explanation of his own father’s disappearance at the end of World War Two, an event which seems to be linked to Sweden’s neutrality. Inevitably, Pearl’s and Axel’s paths cross and they embark on a tentative relationship.
Pearl and Axel are skilfully drawn and complex characters. In many ways Pearl is like Ms Olsson’s own younger self. “I have given her a lot of the things about myself I really don’t like, shame, guilt, the appalling errors I made …” Both characters spend a lot of time on introspection and, undoubtedly, the writer uses them to provide different perspectives on the events of the time and on art and politics. Ms Olsson’s mother was Australian and her father Swedish and both Axel and Pearl become the means to encourage the reader to reflect firstly on different attitudes to art, specifically the opera house and what it symbolises and secondly on war and the complexity of neutrality.
Shell’s setting in terms of place and time, is one of the great strengths of this novel. There is a real feel of the period with its turbulent politics and threat of war, with rebellion and change happening all around and yet paternalism still dominating. As Axel combs the city and surrounding areas in his search for Jorn, we are also given wonderfully detailed descriptions of place. Shell is filled with images of light and water and we are taken over and over again to view the opera house as it continues to be built.
This is a complex and thought-provoking novel, full of wonderful imagery and symbolism. It’s not the kind of novel you can read quickly. Often, you find yourself re-reading passages, pondering their meaning. You might be tempted to wish that there was a bit less introspection and a bit more storytelling, but, all in all, this is masterful writing and, if you were planning a trip to Sydney, and a visit to The Opera House you’d go there much better informed having read Shell.