In the second volume of Bloomsbury’s The Writer and the City series, Peter Carey, an Australian native, returns to Sydney after 17 years. Armed with a battery-powered tape recorder, he badgers old friends including a Vietnam vet, a lawyer and an architect to contribute stories that might define Sydney. “A metropolis is, by definition, inexhaustible, and by the time I departed, thirty days later, Sydney was as unknowable to me as it had been on that clear April morning when I arrived,” Carey concludes.
He deftly intertwines dry facts about climate, geography and history with poetic stream of consciousness. The result is a desultory, impressionistic love letter to the city, structured loosely around earth, air, fire and water (one friend protected his home from bush fires; another barely survived the “murderous seas of the 1998 Sydney-Hobart race” which sank six yachts and killed five men).
The acclaimed Booker Prize winner lets his characters direct the story, stepping in briefly to explain (“A rissole, in case you are from across the sea, is a kind of hamburger patty, but it is also an arsehole and also an RSL [Returned Services League]”) and describe (“On Bondi I feel the space everywhere, not just in the luxury of beach and light but in that imagined house two streets back where I will not have to throw a book away to make room for each new one”). Carey touches lightly but firmly on Sydney’s own brand of white guilt and patriotism, as well as its culture and landmarks.