Preaching to the Converted:
Garry Disher's Play Abandoned
Garry Disher has written across a range of genres but is best known for his award-winning crime series – the Wyatt books about a roguish thief, and the Peninsula Series, police procedurals set on the Victorian Coast. Play Abandoned is neither of these, but it does pick up many of Disher’s underlying concerns with modern Australia, also dealt with in the Peninsula series.
In Play Abandoned, the families from country South Australia come to the Bon Accord Hotel at the Adelaide seaside for their annual summer holiday. But change is in the air. The rooms are being remodelled, the food has become decidedly ‘nouvelle’ and the hotel is hosting a writers festival over the weekend featuring a famous talkback host who has written this summer’s stocking filler.
Into this milieu comes Marian Parr, grieving the loss of a child and estranged from her husband, but still somehow convinced to holiday his brother’s family. Marian provides the wry, ironic view of the fallibility of her extend family, the other hotel guests and staff. She is the left-winger, the city girl thrown into a group of country folk, both fascinating (especially to the men) and dangerous.
But Disher doesn’t just spend time with Marian. Disher’s authorial eye roves across a range of characters – understanding and exposing them at the same time. Generally, however, the characters come across as caricatures. There is the philandering husband, the bored love-struck teenager, the famous talkback personality. All of them act and react exactly as the reader expects, leaving no room for surprise. Even Marian, for all the novel focuses on her, never emerges as a real character but rather as a goad for the conservative characters around her and a vehicle for the novelist’s concerns.
Play Abandoned is no crime novel; there is no central mystery to drive the narrative, in fact there is very little plot at all. What story there is moves as languidly as the weather, building up to the eventual literal and figurative storm which cancels the international cricket match that everyone is waiting for and throws the characters into disarray.
If anything Play Abandoned is broad satire. Its scathing treatment of topics such as Australia’s obsession with sporting heroes, the evils of organised religion, our participation in foreign wars, down to the emptiness of ‘retail therapy’ and writers festivals, treads a fine line of exposure and criticism, and all from a decidedly left perspective. But the observations are sharp and, for the most part, the satire works, only occasionally dipping into sarcasm and, later in the book, into farce.
Garry Disher is clearly annoyed about a lot of things, most particularly middle Australia. While he gets a lot of this off his chest in Play Abandoned he does it in a way that is likely to only preach to the converted. He might be better off staying on the Peninsula, where these concerns form part of a richer subtext and are able to prick more effectively at the conscience of the reader.
Arcadia/Press On, 2011