Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Cairo, by Chris Womersley

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Cairo perfectly catches the bohemian atmosphere of inner city Melbourne in the 1980s, while skilfully mixing it with a thrilling crime plot centred around the notorious 1986 theft of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.

If you were a teenager growing up in Melbourne in the mid-eighties, then this novel will bring back lots of memories (as it did for me).  The year is 1986. Seventeen-year-old Tom Button has moved from the country town of Dunley to groovy inner city Fitzroy and takes up residence at the Cairo apartment block, a beautiful art deco building set in a lush garden. Here's a spooky personal parallel: in the early nineties I was working in a late night convenience store in Nicholson Street, just opposite the Cairo. Several of the residents used to pop in to buy chocolate bars and litres of milk. At the time I was looking for a new place, and one of the Cairo’s denizens with whom I used to chat told me there was a spare flat going. She raved about how wonderful the Cairo was and that it was very bohemian and hip. I did go and have a look at that apartment up for rent, but found it far too small for what they were asking. And so that was that.

In essence, Cairo is a coming of age story and (one assumes) an autobiographical novel. Seventeen-year-old Tom Button yearns for more than his dull, white bread existence in rural Dunley. He dreams of rubbing shoulders with exotic writers and artists, and has aspirations to become a novelist himself. When his rather exotic and outre Aunt Helen suddenly dies, Tom's father inherits her tiny flat at the Cairo. Tom is soon to start at Melbourne University, and he manages to talk his father into letting him move into the flat as long as he promises to undertake some maintenance work. And so Tom gets his chance to escape dull Dunley and move into fast-paced inner-city Fitzroy.

Soon enough he gets to meet some of the residents of the Cairo and is drawn into a circle of artists, musicians and poets. It's all fun to begin with, and Tom feels special to be mixing with such a group, but then the initial glamour starts to fade and a dark subculture of chronic drug addiction, petty crime and physical abuse starts to emerge. What once seemed sunny and light has slipped into the murky and dark. Into this story of damaged people and failed artistic ambitions is intertwined  a plot about the infamous 1986 theft of Picasso’s The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria. Tom Button's friends at the Cairo are all deeply involved. When Tom has a brief fling with one of this new circle of friends, things are further complicated by a melancholy mixture of love, sex and desire.  

I very much enjoyed Cairo. Womersley writes in a lovely, elegant prose that isn't too florid or mannered. He hits just the right notes and his descriptions and metaphors are right on. His re-creation of 1980s Melbourne (he even includes the Chat'n'Chew Cafe in Swanston Street!) is wonderfully evocative of that time and place. As someone who was entering young adulthood at that time, and trying to figure out what to do with myself, I really felt like Womersley was writing my own autobiography.

The interweaving of The Weeping Woman plot into what is clearly an autobiographical story is skilfully done, with both aspects complementing each other. The use of The Weeping Woman as a metaphor for an angst filled youthful romantic infatuation is also an ingenious touch.

In a lot of ways, Cairo reminded me of David Lynch's 1986 film Blue Velvet (the movie gets a glowing mention by Tom). The novel has that feeling of creeping unease mixed with a cast of charismatic yet troubled characters. Cairo even has its own Jeffrey Beaumont, Dorothy Vallens and Frank Booth.   It's temping to think that Blue Velvet was pretty much used as a loose template.

If you fled boring suburbia or the country in the 1980s and fancied yourself a film-maker, artist, writer or poet living in fabulous inner city squalor with a coterie of cool friends, but found the dream just fell short of the reality, then this exquisitely nostalgic novel is sure to give you many hours of pleasure.

Cairo, by Chris Womersley. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781922070517  RRP: $29.95