I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of Black Glass in preparation for a panel I shared with its author Meg Mundell at the Writers at the Convent festival earlier this month. It arrived only a few days before our session but I had no trouble finishing in time. I read the last few chapters slowly over coffee at the Convent cafe, savouring the compelling story and Meg’s gorgeous prose.
Black Glass is a work of ‘speculative fiction’. I wasn’t even sure what that meant until I read it. The story is set in Melbourne in a possible future, neither too far away nor too hard to imagine. The city is divided into zones, its rivers choked with pollution. Those with full ID and clean papers work in the Civic and Commerce zones and live in gated communities in the suburbs. Beyond the city are The Regions. The ‘undocs’ hover in the margins, but not beyond the reach of surveillance and experiments in ‘positive re-calibration of the aggregate psyche, achieved via the artful finetuning of public space.’
Tally and Grace are sisters whose drug manufacturing father is killed in an explosion while they are hiding out in The Regions. Grace believes Tally has died with him and flees to Melbourne in a daze. Tally likewise heads to the city, knowing it’s where her sister will go. The plot is propelled by Tally’s search for her sister against what often seem like insurmountable odds, both girls resourceful but vulnerable.
I figure being an ‘outsider’ gave New Zealand-born Meg an edge when it came to writing about Melbourne and she agreed when we talked about it at Writers at the Convent. The city of Melbourne is one of the strongest characters in the novel. Meg depicts it vividly and without sentimentality.
A river slid through the casino district, but it was choked with plastic bottles and old coupons; its tea-brown depths merged with the oily harbour of the Docklands, where vacant high-rise towers and basement strip joints marked the dodgy part of town. Most of the fountains in the city grid were dry now, just drifting spots for dead leaves and fast-food litter. The fountains in the rich part of the city still ran clear, but they were monitored; thick-necked guards materialised like magic if you stopped. Tourists could throw coins in, but you weren’t allowed to drink. The city was already teaching her tricks: scoop and slurp, slip away, keep moving.
The story is harsh rather than bleak, a cautionary tale closer to The Lorax than The Road. It sparkles with unexpected humour. Public servants work for ‘Polbiz’ and speak ‘Beige’, media employees work in ‘Journotainment Units’, and the Docklands has become a ghetto. Like I say, a futuristic Melbourne not too hard to imagine. The only stretch is that in Black Glass the Southern Star actually works.
As a manuscript, Black Glass won the 2007 DJ O’Hearn Memorial Fellowship and was short-listed for the 2010 CAL Scribe Prize (my partner Andrew Nette was long-listed for the same award). Now in print and due to hit bookshops on 28 February 2011, I’m predicting Meg’s debut novel goes on to win a few more awards. It deserves to.
This review has been submitted as part of the Aussie Author Challenge.