Review: The Big Smoke

big smokeThe Big Smoke by D’Arcy Niland
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Source: hardcover copy borrowed from library

My interest in D’Arcy Niland was only sparked when I read Ruth Park’s autobiography, A Fence Around the Cuckoo & Fishing in the Styx which of course, referred quite a bit to Niland being a happily married couple who also spurred each other on in their writing jobs. Unfortunately, most of his books are out of print except for one, The Shiralee. Thankfully, my library has a decent collection and carried a few of his works.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from this novel as there wasn’t much information online about it. I’ve amended the Goodreads page with the blurb from the inside jacket noting the only other review about this book noted (uncertainly) that it was set in 1950’s Sydney but… it’s not. It is actually from beginning of 20th century to mid ‘20s. It is a novel of interconnected stories surrounding “Jack Johnson’s boy”.

The story began, of course, just before the conception of this boy from the perspective of a fight promoter, Chiddy Hay, who never really made it and is down on his luck. It ended, at a full circle, with Chiddy Hay, a pensioner still down on his luck (though this was during the Great Depression) and the boy grown. Out of the 10 chapters/stories, only one short one is from the perspective of the boy. All other 9 stories are told from people connected to him either directly or indirectly but most assuredly connected by living in the Big Smoke (ie. City of Sydney).

This novel really isn’t about the boy or anyone in particular but rather of the city and its effects on the residents of said city.

”…this city is a character. It talks. It works on its own. It plays fair and it plays foul. I’m what it’s done to me.”

The variety of the characters, their warmth and vitality, was just amazing. At the end of each chapter, I want to know more about that particular character though of course, we’d have to move on. There was a steeplejack, a street sweeper, owner of a burger joint, a night watcher, a housewife, and many others who work in and for the city. Yet, despite everything they do, the city lives on when they fade away.

Sydney, of course, is my city, my home and I have loved each moment I read this novel as I imagine myself as life was back in the last century. These characters expressed what each city dwellers would have felt at one time or another; the beauty of the city, the smog, the loneliness, etc. The Great Depression surely was not a good age to live in but each of these characters felt so real and their stories (regardless of whether it ends well or not) were heartfelt.

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