A Review of Kristina Olsson’s Shell

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop.

“But tonight the air was precarious. All sandstone shadow, smudgy. She thought that time was like this too, a spongy edge, imprecise, as close and as far as memory. As her dead mother’s face.”

Sometimes, words on a page can be little magical time-travelling contraptions for the lucky reader. Shell, written by Australian author Kristina Olsson, is that kind of experience. The story is enchanting, absorbing and deceptively simple. Its laid-back chapters are gorgeous and nostalgic. Kristina Olsson was winner of the 2014 Nita Kibble Literary Award and the 2013 Queensland Literary Award for Best Nonfiction. Her latest novel, Shell, released on 1 October 2018, is a story that opens up like a flower bud, petal by gentle petal, and reveals intimate and tantalising details of times and places of not so long ago.

Set predominantly in the mid-1960s in Sydney, Shell tells us the story of its two central characters, Pearl and Axel. Pearl is a news reporter for the Telegraph, living in the shadow of her mother’s death when Pearl was only fourteen. Axel is a Swedish immigrant, working on the Sydney Opera House project as a glass artisan. While he is deeply inspired by the Opera House’s Danish architect Jørn Utzon, Axel is also plagued by his own childhood sadness. He desperately wishes to meet the architect face-to-face.

It is quickly apparent, and even confronting at first, that Shell is written in a uniquely literary style. Many fragments and phrases are intermingled with beautiful long and short sentences. This style is enticing. It makes the reader eager to read on, to find out more, and it gives the story an ease of momentum and the perfect pace. The nostalgic feel of the book is authentic and tangible—electric jugs; cats eye glasses; typewriter covers; black Bakelite telephones; a gin and tonic with lunch, and then back to work at the office. The story even had me marvelling at the thought of the slow and bulky computers, state-of-the-art, the size of an entire room!

As the characters’ stories are revealed, so too are authentic descriptions of Australian imagery, and more importantly, of the way things and people were and still are. I wonder if anything has really changed in fifty years, for Axel theorises that Australians can treat art with disdain, and that the people around him at the time only desired ‘sameness’ and to ‘live life on the surface’. Axel poignantly asks if Australians are afraid to look into the heart of the country ‘to hear the old stories, to see what was inscribed on their own hearts and land’.

Today, the Sydney Opera House is arguably one of Australia’s most unique and memorable buildings. Yet, Kristina Olsson manages to bring to life and portray the Opera House, even in its incomplete bare bones of construction. Its empty shells and unfinished white sails mingle with blokes in hard hats and dusty work boots, talk of Vietnam and what’s for smoko. It is difficult to resist being transported back there. It is hard not to wonder.