What are Australia’s forgotten stories, those tales from history that don’t get enough of an airing? This 17,000-word novella by Cate Kennedy is the first of five that were selected for Griffith Review 46: Forgotten Stories (The Novella Project II). The subtitle promises fiction with a historical bent, but also something that strays from the well-worn beaten paths that Australian history tends to tread.
Former Glory is a quick read that felt shorter than it actually is, almost like a long short story, and it can definitely be read in a single sitting. It’s told from the present by Ed, a first-person narrator, so it doesn’t have the dusty texture that some might expect from historical fiction. Instead, it’s about an attempt by two artsy out-of-towners to restore the pub in a dying country town, with Ed’s reluctant help.
Ed’s wry voice brings the story to life and is one of the novella’s strong points. His direct addresses to the reader bring us into the text and have us sharing his views of the city-slickers, Cherie and her husband Alan. As he begins the “tedious hard slog” of renovations (a detail edited out of those reality TV shows), he knowingly decides that “it’s probably better just to give you a montage”; what follows is humorous, mostly at the expense of Cherie, but there is some warmth there too.
Ed’s hometown is located not far from Beechworth, a historic Victorian gold-rush town also well known for its links to Ned Kelly. Ed tells us that “we’ve had the gold rush, followed by wool, tobacco, apples, cannery and factory closures and now, like a final king hit, a freeway bypass.” The renovation of the pub touches on a number of these elements and, in its most powerful moments that deal with the anti-Chinese Buckland riot, questions whether history should be left buried or have a light thrown upon its often unsavoury realities.
The historical elements are blended into the main narrative thread, though there is some exposition around the timing of the Buckland riots and Eureka Stockade that feels clumsily told through dialogue for the reader’s benefit. That aside, there is much more to this novella than the history: Ed’s relationship with his dying father and his search of a next move in life were, to me, the most engaging and successful drivers of the story, while the renovations and history give the narrative a backbone that raises some interesting questions.
A short review for a short novella, but definitely one that’s worth checking out. A rewarding read.