From comedic brilliance to historical drama and gritty urban crime, Ashley Kalagian Blunt looks at books set in the Inner West that bring a unique perspective to the suburbs we know and love.
Almost Sincerely by Zoë Norton Lodge
“Annandale: it’s that skinny little suburb that fell asleep between good suburbs. Good suburbs where actual stuff happens like trips to the movies and catching the train.” But, as Zoë Norton Lodge goes on to prove in her almost-memoir Almost Sincerely, a lot goes on in Annandale – and wherever else she happens to be.
Norton Lodge is known for her comedy stylings on ABC’s The Checkout and The Chaser. She also co-created Story Club, a live comedic storytelling event that happens monthly at Giant Dwarf Theatre in Redfern.
Her first book, Almost Sincerely, is a collection of comedic vignettes about growing up in 1980s and 90s Annandale. These absurdist tales begin with childhood dramas of preschool, bullies, pet fish and wild possums, and move on to the struggles of terrible jobs with even worse bosses. Another story shares Norton Lodge’s experience with Bell’s palsy, when her face becomes “half a wheel of brie that had been left in the sun and dressed up as a pirate.”
Her family also features in many episodes, such as when her parents turn their neighbours into contestants for their own personal reality show, Survivor: Annandale, and the day her mother douses herself in petrol.
As Norton Lodge puts it, “Let’s take Annandale for a spin.”
Dark Fires Shall Burn by Anna Westbrook
Set in 1940s Newtown, Anna Westbrook’s debut novel is a rich Inner West story that revolves around the murder of an eleven-year-old girl. While the real life victim, Joan Norma Ginn, becomes Frances Reed in the book, the details of her death in what is now Camperdown Memorial Rest Park remain unchanged.
Westbrook discovered that the park was originally the third-oldest colonial burial ground in Sydney. In 1946, Ginn’s murder shocked the community and, although police investigated hundreds of suspects, no arrests were made. Public outcry led to the cemetery’s closure. The gravestones were relocated and walled off around St Stephen’s church but the bodies remain under the park today.
In Dark Fires Shall Burn, Westbrook explores what this girl’s life in the Inner West might have been like in the tumultuous years after World War II, and how her death affected the community. Rumours abound among the characters, weaving in further history: “Personally, I think it was the Yank,” one suggests. “Like that lunatic from the US army they hanged in Melbourne a couple of years back for strangling those three broads.”
Westbrook doesn’t sensationalise this violence, but instead crafts an emotional story full of complex characters. The novel’s evocative sense of place comes alive through the vivid language of the era and its music, film and fashion. In her research, Westbrook noted that, while much of Sydney has changed significantly since the 1940s, photos of Newtown are still immediately recognisable. Dark Fires Shall Burn offers a chance to time-travel into those images.
Tunnel Vision by Andrew Christie
The latest in a crime series featuring Camperdown resident John Lawrence, Tunnel Vision is set in and around Sydney circa 2016. It features a career bank robber being hunted by two violent lowlifes, and a pair of high school students trying to escape the fallout of a disastrous stunt.
Christie’s main character is a regular guy, tough and knowledgeable thanks to a military background, with a habit of getting mixed up with serious criminals. But in the novel’s more domestic moments, Christie captures the feel of Inner West life. Billy, one of the teenage protagonists, lives with Lawrence and spends time “wandering between Leichhardt, Newtown and Marrickville. He liked Newtown best. There was always stuff happening on the streets, musicians to listen to, and street people to watch and to talk to.”
Considering it better to hide out after his stunt goes south, Billy spends his nights in the same Camperdown Memorial Rest Park that features in Westbrook’s novel. There, he watches park-goers picnic and relax. If he’s aware of the park’s origin as a cemetery, he’s unbothered by it, as he climbs over the stone wall into the cemetery to sleep at night – until Lawrence finally tracks him down. Billy inevitably has to get out of Sydney and run for his life in the novel’s surprising climax.