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Break the Rules!

November 10, 2019

Bruny Island Map by Kompakt (CC Licence)

Review: Heather Rose, Bruny, 2019

A bridge is being built to connect Bruny Island, south of Hobart, to the Tasmanian mainland. After a bomb damages the partly-constructed bridge, the Premier, John Coleman, asks his twin sister, Astrid, for help. She is a UN conflict resolution specialist and John wants the various factions for and against the bridge to calm down.

To Astrid, known as Ace, something about the bridge doesn’t add up. How can the Australian Government justify the two billion dollar cost for a “bridge to nowhere”? And what is  China’s interest? Tasmania has signed up to the Belt and Road Initiative, under which China is supplying the steel for the bridge.

Ace puts her doubts aside and uses her skills, meeting with all the main players in the community, so that they feel their voices have been heard. But her doubts grow, and she is disturbed by the “bridge at any cost” attitude of the Prime Minister, her brother and other creepy but powerful players. John Coleman wants the bridge completed before the coming Tasmanian election. To achieve that goal, 300 Chinese workers are brought in, opening the possibility of importing foreign labour to other parts of Australia.

Ace eventually finds out what is really going on, and it is so outrageous that, if the novel had been written ten years ago, this development would have seemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is quite believable.

Ace reconnects with her friend Becky, now an advisor to the Prime Minister. As teenagers, their mantra was “Break the Rules”. Together they had got tattoos in order to make their mothers furious. Now Ace and Becky break the rules in a much more dangerous way.

There is much exposition in Bruny, which some reviewers have criticised as didactic and interrupting the narrative. Ace explains complex situations, comments on the crimes of Australian governments, and advocates for human rights and against corruption. For example:

There ought to be a name for the kind of overwhelm that happens when you realise there are too many things to fight. If it’s not the environment, then it’s human rights. If it’s not human rights, it’s women’s rights. Law and order. Gun control. Invasive species. Water pollution. Tax reform. Refugee policy.  Education. Health care. The list is endless.

Heather Rose (Photo: Isabelleocean (CC licence)

To me, this exposition added to the novel, and reflected Ace’s character. Rose treats the reader as an intelligent person who cares about what is happening to Australia. And despite the “interruptions”, I could not stop reading, mainly because I believed in her characters, and was pulled along by her story-telling, desperate to know what the baddies are really planning. As well as political satire and a moving portrayal of a family in crisis, Bruny is a thriller.

Most reviewers have been positive. For me, the best assessment of the novel is by Louise Swinn, a founder and a judge of the Stella Prize, writing in the Saturday Paper.  Here is her concluding paragraph:

With a collective sigh of relief we’ve emerged on the other side of the writing-class maxim “Show, don’t tell”, a false binary that ignores how a vivid piece of writing can do both. If at times Bruny can be a little didactic, it has a vastness and a spaciousness that seem almost old-fashioned. It has that eminently readable interiority that only a novel can bring, the certainty of opinions from a particular mindset that is unabashedly, almost resignedly, only able to be itself.

Rose dedicates Bruny “For anyone who is still awake”, a signal that this is an issues novel. Perhaps we should expect some exposition and advocacy in such a work. For those who find this hard to swallow, Rose helps the medicine go down with a thrilling plot and characters we care for.

[Note: Heather Rose’s profoundly moving previous novel, The Museum of Modern Love, is very different to Bruny. Follow this link to my review.]

7 Comments leave one →
  1. dustbunnies436 permalink
    November 10, 2019 6:57 pm

    On the basis of this fascinating review, I’ve just requested both from my local public library. Thank you!

    • Bryce permalink*
      November 12, 2019 7:39 pm

      Hope you love them as much as I do! Happy reading.

    • dustbunnies436 permalink
      January 11, 2020 9:17 pm

      Have just finished reading Bruny. Adored it.

  2. April 28, 2020 9:59 am

    Excellent review Bryce. I love how you’ve grappled with the essence of this novel.

    I liked your point “and it is so outrageous that, if the novel had been written ten years ago, this development would have seemed too far-fetched. Given all that the Australian government has done over recent years, the shocking plan is quite believable.” Another blogger felt it was so “preposterous” that she didn’t like it at all. However, I’m with you. While it is outrageous it’s not completely unbelievable either.

    BTW When you comment on my blog, your name isn’t linked to your own blog, which is a shame as people who see your comments might want to check you out, but they can’t easily! Or, do you actively not want to be checked out?

    • Bryce permalink*
      April 29, 2020 10:38 am

      Thank you for your comments, Sue, and especially for alerting me to the lack of a link to my blog. I think (hope) I’ve fixed it now.

      • April 29, 2020 7:19 pm

        Great Bryce – I’m really glad if it was something you hadn’t realised.


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