A curious novel set in FRANCE
Talking Location With author Alison Booth – The Blue Mountains
29th March 2023
#TalkingLocationWith… Alison Booth, author of Bellevue – The Australian Blue Mountains
The Australian Blue Mountains are a part of the range separating the coastal fringe of New South Wales from the fertile western plains. They are a magical place, more ancient eroded plateau than mountain range. A place with glorious flora and fauna, and ancient Aboriginal paintings in caves whose location has not yet been fully mapped. A place where the terrain is so rugged that, as recently as 1994, a previously unknown and ancient tree was found, only 150 kms from Sydney. This tree was from an evolutionary line thought to be long extinct – the Wollemi Pine.
My latest novel Bellevue is set in the Upper Blue Mountains, a place that is dear to my heart – and a place dear to four generations of my family. Over the years we’ve had many family holidays there, the generations shifting but united by our love of bushwalking and the wilderness. All of us have been charmed by the landscape, with its wildness and its mists that can at any time swirl across the plateau and pool in its gorges and valleys. Charmed by the eucalyptus forests on the uplands, by the lush rainforests in sheltered gorges and valleys, by the wild heathland along the edges of escarpments, and by the cliff-hanging swamps.
My first memories of the Blue Mountains are of hikes into the Grose Valley near Blackheath. There are a number of different ways of making the descent and my parents took my sister and me on all of them. Down into the valley from Perry’s Lookdown, and through the Blue Gum Forest. Down into the valley via a series of iron ladders attached to the dripping cliff face at Govett’s Leap. Down into the valley from Evan’s Lookout, scrambling down the hill-side and on to Beauchamp Falls, or along the Grand Canyon.
My sister and I remember scampering happily along on all these walks. We don’t recall complaining. But my father liked to repeatedly tell the story – which he got from his grandfather, a Methodist minister who emigrated to Melbourne from Yorkshire – about the draught horses that ploughed up and down the hills and dales of Yorkshire and that lived to a ripe old age because of this exercise. Thinking back to his tales now, my guess is that they were designed to dampen complaints about the steepness of the ascents. Although I have no recollection of whinging, I do recall my own daughters when they were very young complaining about the strenuousness of the hiking. These protests stopped when they were eight or nine as they grew to love the mountains as much as their parents and grandparents.
I wasn’t to develop vertigo until middle age. Then it hit me on one of my hikes out of the Grose Valley, when it was too late in the afternoon to pick another route out. As I began to climb the first of those metal ladders up the cliff face at Govett’s Leap, my palms started sweating and my heart racing. I kept my eyes on the ladder’s rungs, and on the tiny flowers and ferns that I could see growing on ledges of the saturated cliff face. I listened to the reassuring sound of my husband’s voice as he talked me up that series of ladders. I will never be able to do that climb again. Why I should have developed vertigo in middle-age I have no idea. But ever since, whenever we plan a walking holiday, I trace out the journey in my mind while looking at detailed ordinance survey maps and walking notes, to make sure there won’t be another recurrence of that experience.
But walking in the Blue Mountains is not all about going down or coming up ladders. There are plenty of other descents that are easier, where you won’t experience vertigo. There is even the Scenic Railway at Katoomba, where are you can descend into the Jamison Valley via the steep railway originally designed to haul coal from a blessedly short-lived mine in the valley.
My parents eventually moved from Sydney to Blackheath, to live a short walk away from the Govett’s Leap lookout over the Grose Valley. And it is the little township of Blackheath that motivated me to set my new novel Bellevue in the fictitious village of Numbulla.
People often ask me about the inspiration for my novels. For Bellevue, it was environmental activism, strong women, and the Upper Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The novel tells the story of a feisty widow who inherits a dilapidated old house near a mountain wilderness, and who confronts her family’s past while she struggles to protect her community from developers’ onslaughts.
A book reviewer of an early copy Bellevue notes that it “a clear warning… that we must be willing to fight corruption and greed to preserve those places that are most precious.”
Alison Booth is professor of economics at the Australian National University. The author of seven novels, her latest book is Bellevue
Catch the author on Twitter @booth_alison
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I enjoyed reading ‘Bellevue’ so much and this lovely insight into the location, together with Alison’s personal reminiscences, was the icing on the cake!