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The Comfort of Figs

June 25, 2012


The Story Bridge nearing completion, October 1939
From the State Library of Queensland Collection

Simon Cleary, The Comfort of Figs, 2008

Reading this book is a joy.

It is a joy because it conjures up the feeling of Brisbane, where I once lived, “a city of hills and the trees which cover them.” Cleary uses sensory prose and striking images to bring the city, and its fig trees, to life.

We take pleasure in the characters, liking them despite their flaws. Robbie, the protagonist, is a good man, passionate about trees, but unable to respond to his partner, Freya, or understand what is happening for her, just as his father was unable to respond to him. We care for these people, and become engrossed in following the evolving relationships between them.

The structure is elegant. We are hooked by a short prologue which sets up a mystery we want to solve. The rest of the book is in three parts: Figs is set in 1999-2000 and tells of Robbie and Freya. Bridge is about Robbie’s father and the other men constructing the Story Bridge sixty years earlier. And the final part, Story, links the bridge and the figs into one story.

Learning about building the bridge is an unexpected joy. Novel readers often skip technical sections, but Cleary writes with a light touch, keeping us interested by integrating engineering details into the story and using the bridge’s potential for metaphor.

And finally, we are swept along by the story itself, propelled by two terrible events, one that comes out of nowhere, the other a tragedy that builds slowly as the bridge workers are swayed by a theory about how the world works, and act on it in a way that causes the thing they most fear.

I was prompted to read Simon Cleary’s first novel by a recent thought-provoking talk he gave about his second book at the University of Queensland Library. That novel, Closer to Stone, is a joy that awaits me.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Beverley permalink
    June 25, 2012 9:22 am

    Thanks Bryce – your words about words are always worth reading. Now I am off to find Cleary’s books.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    June 25, 2012 1:26 pm

    Yes, Beverley, if you like strangler figs, the Story Bridge, Brisbane, or a good story, this book is for you. Closer to Stone, his second novel, is about art and belief and terrorism, and has had more mixed reviews, but attending his talk about it at UQ has motivated me to read it soon.

  3. Claire permalink
    July 3, 2012 5:33 pm

    I love novels that include the technical bits, or the history. I think this is added value that most readers enjoy.

  4. July 3, 2012 6:40 pm

    This sounds right up my alley Bryce … I spent nearly 7 years in Brisbane in my childhood and well remember the Story Bridge. A novel that weaves the story of that, with figs, into a wider story sounds well worth giving a go.

  5. Bryce permalink*
    July 3, 2012 10:56 pm

    I think you would enjoy it, Sue – the marvel is that the Story Bridge and fig strands are weaved so well together. And yes, Claire, the technical bits and bridge history added much to my enjoyment.

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