Spirit Of Progress by Steven Carroll

carrollSpirit of Progress is a wonderfully Melbourne book, with a rich cast of characters. It’s a prequel to Steven Carroll’s much-loved Glenroy trilogy, featuring engine driver Vic, wife Rita and son Michael, catching the family poised on the brink of entering the world of these books: Rita is pregnant with Michael, and the novel ends with them visiting the wooden frame that will become their family home, in a suburb in the process of being born.

The novel’s centre – the character who will tenuously link Vic and Rita with an artist, a journalist and a gallery owner – is Vic’s aunt, Miss Carroll, an old woman living in a tent on the fringes of the city. As her name hints, she is based on Carroll’s real-life relative, an aunt who was the subject of Sidney Nolan’s famous painting, Woman and Tent. Journalist and newspaper art critic George is sent to cover the story of the mysterious old woman, a kind of last pioneer, ‘a walking image of the way things once were’. Artist Sam sees her photograph and is mesmerised by the idea of painting her. ‘She is, reasons, both history and alive, myth and fact. A gift.’ Through him we meet Tess, an influential gallery owner and Sam’s married former lover.

This is Melbourne, 1946, a time when ‘every writer and artist in this country goes … away’. Both George, who counts Hemingway among his heroes and dreams of being a novelist, and Sam, already recognised as a future star, are marking time until they can leave. Meanwhile, George is in love with his profession as a newspaperman, and his role in producing ‘the words that make up the continuing conversation that goes on every day all around him, on the footpaths and trams and in the trains of the city’. Read now, as newspapers dwindle fast, his easy passion for his work is bittersweet and hopelessly romantic.

Devotion to work of all kinds runs through the novel – when Vic visits Tess’s gallery on his aunt’s behalf, he overhears the painters talking about shop, recognises it as similar to the talk of his engine driver colleagues, and considers that maybe his work, too, is ‘a sort of art’. Rita, standing in her kitchen, reflects that her frying pans are ‘layered with tales and memories’ and that ‘there’s no reason that the talk [in her kitchen] should be thought of as small, and the stories being so little, so insignificant, that they’re not really worth recording’. These thoughts, taken together, and the way Vic’s ordinary family is woven with the stories of these people who will be significant in public life – Tess, George, Sam – suggests that there are stories to be found in all kinds of lives, and all of them matter in their way. All of them contribute to history.

This novel, divided into short chapters and replete with crisp, evocative imagery, is an easy but deeply satisfying read. It cannily transports the reader to the streets, cafes, galleries and workers’ cottages of 1960s Melbourne – and engrosses us in the fate of Carroll’s beautifully drawn characters.

Highly recommended.

Jo Case is the editor of Readings Monthly and associate editor of Kill Your Darlings journal. You can follow her on Twiiter - @jocaseau.