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Talking Location With Author Vanessa Lee – CRONULLA (NSW)

26th March 2024

#TalkingLocationWith…. Vanessa Lee, author of High Rise  – CRONULLA, SYDNEY

All of the action of my debut novel High Rise plays out in a fictionalised version of my hometown, Cronulla, a peninsula in the south of Sydney. Practically surrounded by water on four sides, it is a particularly exposed piece of land, with the Pacific Ocean beating up on the string of sandy beaches from the east and multiple bays wrapping around from the south and west. On a calm day, the sets of waves roll in languidly along the beaches, and the bays are calm and sparking, with yachts and motor boats bobbing serenely. Full of parks and a long Esplanade ambling past high rise apartment blocks and federation homes with stunning ocean views, it is a truly beautiful place to live or visit. On a sunny weekend, Cronulla is a playground for surfers, bodyboarders, swimmers, or anyone who simply wants to enjoy the wide open natural spaces and amazing cafes. I count myself as lucky to have grown up there.

In my book, I don’t use the name Cronulla (derived from an Aboriginal word “kurranulla” meaning ‘place of pink seashells’) and instead picked another Aboriginal name for my fictional suburb; “Bombora”, a term for the sound of large waves breaking over submerged rock shelves. It seems a fitting name given that my novel focuses on the impact of climate change and increasingly violent storms that send waves crashing into the surrounding rocks of the beachside suburb. One of the main characters, Guil, is a Portuguese-Australian teenager who meets his friends to surf after school on these rock shelves every day, and it is he and his friends who play a pivotal role as first responders during the vicious storm that is the climax of the novel.

When I visited Cronulla post-COVID in March 2022 (living in Germany, I had been locked out of Australia for two years), a La Nina summer was in full swing with torrential rain leading to huge swells and a king tide that surged right up to my favourite place in all of Cronulla, the concrete steps outside the old yellow swimming Complex. I myself learned to swim there as a child and when I perch myself there on the steps with a coffee, I feel the most at home in the world.

Vanessa Lee


Next door to the Complex is a restaurant mere metres from the surf. It has recently changed hands and is now called “Bobby’s” (in my novel it is called “Vaga”, whose eventual closing due to exposure to king tides is an ominous symbol in the narrative). It was the day that I tried to walk in front of this restaurant but feared being taken out by the huge storm surge coming up to the walls that the seed of the idea for High Rise was planted in my mind. I really had to ask myself: Will this restaurant still be standing in 50 years? 100 years? If what the scientists are warning is true, will my children and their children be able to come and sit on the same steps of the old Complex where I learned to swim, the steps that I love and that totally ground me whenever I visit my hometown? Or, will future generations instead be able to snorkel and look down to see submerged park benches and concrete foundations of these buildings through the murky, plankton-filled waters?

Vanessa Lee

It was this bittersweet feeling of having nostalgia for my childhood but also starting to wonder seriously about the future we all face that led me to write what is in some ways a love letter to where I grew up, an effort to capture it like a message in a bottle for the future. As I wrote, I could feel the hot asphalt of the South Cronulla Public School playground where I played under pungent fig trees. I could see myself as a barefoot, sandy haired toddler splashing in one of the many ocean pools, scared of meeting a blue ringed octopus in the rough stone walls. All of these details are on the pages of my novel, and anyone from Cronulla who reads it can relate to the smells, sounds and sights I describe.

Cronulla is a suburb that has been massively gentrified in the last decades, also a theme covered in High Rise. Once exemplifying the quintessential beachside suburb, with take-away shops and milk bars, and where it was acceptable to go to the movies barefoot and full of salt after a swim, it now boasts cafes and ocean-facing restaurants of an international standard where the locals and tourists alike come out in their finest to eat seafood and mediterranean-inspired fare. But the sleepy inlets, sparking rockpools, and easy lifestyle still persist alongside. I hope it exists for many generations to come.

Vanessa Lee is the author of High Rise, a book very much devoted to her hometown on the East Coast of Australia. You can find her on Instagram: @vanessa_lee_writes

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