Semi-spoiler alert: in this post, I discuss the setting of The Rosie Project by Gaeme Simsion. I don’t think anything I say here would be classified as a plot spoiler, but if you don’t want to know anything about the book, maybe skip this.
I read The Rosie Project a week or so ago.
I quite liked it. The narrator is a hoot. Some parts of the book are very funny.
But something kept bothering me while I was reading it, and it took me more than halfway through before I tweaked to what it was.
The book doesn’t feel Australian.
Ostensibly, The Rosie Project is set in Melbourne.
I kept forgetting this.
I forgot it so often that every time the narrator said or thought the word Melbourne, or anything else demonstrably Australian, it would jolt me out of my entranced state.
Oh yes, I would remind myself. It’s set in Melbourne.
And back I would go, and the story would reach out and draw me in again (because it is really a very good story), and I would nod along and laugh and think and lose myself until the next time it happened.
It got so bad that before I finished the book I looked up the author because I was CONVINCED he couldn’t possibly be Australian.
All right, he was born in New Zealand, but he’s lived in Melbourne for a long time, and, in my view, that means he ought to have known better. His book shouldn’t sound like it was written by an American, but it does.
Partly this is because the narrator refers to himself (and others) throughout the book as “tenured” professors.
Australian universities don’t have tenure. They offer full-time, continuing appointments, but those positions are not equivalent to North American tenured posts in terms of job security. Full-time, continuing professors can, and do, lose their jobs if a university restructures.
I don’t know why Simsion made this error (repeatedly through the book), one that could have been so easily avoided (seriously: one mouse click on Google will show you the absence of tenure).
I’m probably hypersensitive to it, because I work in academia and I’ve lived in Australia and I’m married to an Australian who has been an academic in Australia and is now a tenured academic in Canada.
But to me this was just the straw that broke the camel’s back because nothing, nothing about this book felt Australian.
The characters didn’t sound Australian.
The landscape and the weather played absolutely no role in the novel. I think once there was mention of a beach. But otherwise, without the occasional reminders that hey! We’re in Melbourne! there was nothing to prevent the reader from assuming the novel was set in some American city (except, obviously for the part where characters go to the U.S. and that’s a big deal, but until then, nada).
If you have been to Australia, if you have lived in Australia, you know how powerful a presence the landscape and the weather can be. The light there is like nowhere else on earth. The heat can be extraordinary. If you live on the coast (as most Australians do), the ocean and the beach are always just around the corner.
I like reading Australian literature because the relationship to the land is very similar to that found in Canadian literature. We’re both big, young countries with colonial histories, (relatively) thinly populated, with most of our population clustered in a narrow region (the coast for Australia, the U.S. border for Canada). Much of our land mass is harsh and inhospitable. The land is a constant in our literature, sometimes warm, sometimes brooding, sometimes ferocious, but always, always present.
Canadians and Australians, I’ve always felt, have a similar relationship with the land on/in which they live.
There is nothing of this in The Rosie Project.
And I get that the narrator is not the type of person who would notice or care about the weather, or the landscape.
But the people around him would.
And they would sound Australian, in their choice of vocabulary, their turns of phrase, their conversations, even if he didn’t.
And so, no matter how much I liked the story, the execution of it left me feeling vaguely empty, as though I had almost read a great book, but not quite.
Have you read it too? Did you have the same reaction, or am I the only one sitting in my living room grumbling?