Next Tuesday is Australia Day, so I’ve been reading Australian authors lately in preparation.
However, reading Empire Day by Diane Armstrong has been a little like listening to an elderly neighbour who has all the time in the world telling me a story that I’ve probably heard before.
Imagine this. You’re in a hurry to get to the Post Office before it closes, and you don’t have time to listen to your neighbour ramble on, because you have a demanding job, and a household to run, and children to look after and dinner to cook. You like your neighbour though, they are kind and generous and they treat your children as if they were their own grandchildren. But you’ve been caught by them at your gate and their story is going on and on and on, and even when you butt in with little prompts in an attempt to skip ahead a few sections in their story, your neighbour refuses to be hurried, and instead continues to tell you every little detail until you want to scream with frustration and irritation. At 504 pages, Empire Day is the elderly neighbour’s never-ending story.
Empire Day starts in Bondi, Sydney in the late 1940’s, with a group of neighbours, a mixture of working-class Australians and recently arrived ‘reffos,’ who have come to Australia from different areas of Europe after World War Two, gathering to celebrate Empire Day with bonfires and crackers in the street. (Empire Day was replaced by Commonwealth Day in the 1950’s, but this is no longer celebrated in Australia).
The Australian-born and the refuges are suspicious of each other’s ways and have regular misunderstandings. Empire Day tells of romances, single mothers working as bar maids who are looked down on by their neighbours, lonely old busybodies and kids with polio. There are people who have married the wrong person, workers who want to get ahead in their careers and people who desperately want children. There are refugees who feel guilty because they survived the war and other refugees who are war criminals in hiding. There is a lot going on and I didn’t really connect with any particular character or story above any of the others.
I felt the author tried too hard to push the ‘Australian-ness’ of the setting. There were references to every Australian thing you could think of, from the Sydney Harbour Bridge, to Bondi Beach, kookaburras and various native flowers and trees, politicians and newspapers of the time, the murders of prostitutes at Kings Cross and shopping at Mark Foys. Even the street where most of the characters lived was called ‘Wattle Street.’ In the beginning of the story I felt nostalgia for times past, but the more I read, the more irritating the constant reminders that this story was set in Sydney became.
Empire Day would be the perfect book to give to my elderly neighbour. The print is quite large, so they could read in comfort, and the book is long enough to keep them occupied long enough for me to slip in and out of the house a few times without getting caught for a chat. No doubt they will also enjoy the references to times gone by. The only problem is, once they finish the book they will probably want to tell me all about the plot, in great detail. Sigh. Oh well, since Australia Day is a holiday, I’ll have time to hear all about it then.