Sunday, January 17, 2016

Aunts Up the Cross, by Robin Dalton

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Robin Dalton's hilarious memoir of growing up in Sydney's King's Cross during the 1920s and 30s is a delightful postcard from an era now long gone.

Robin Dalton’s literary fame rests on the shoulders of this one slim memoir, Aunts Up the Cross. (A fictitious account of her family, My Relations, written when the author was eight, has been published for the first time this year.) In actual fact, the book is an accidental one. The text was written after Dalton’s husband died and was intended for her daughter, so she would know the sort of world in which she Dalton grew up. When a friend in publishing happened to read it, he insisted it come out as a book.

Mainly set in Sydney’s King’s Cross in the 1920s and 30s, Aunts Up the Cross doesn’t so much centre on eccentric Aunts as on Dalton’s family at large, their idiosyncratic house staff and the many characters who were regular visitors. Dalton’s father was a doctor with a great sense of humour, who liked to involve his daughter in his many japes, while her mother was an energetic housekeeper who chain smoked a hundred cigarettes a day. They lived in a ramshackle three storied house, with the medical practice on the ground floor, nestled in the middle of a neighbourhood of shops. Grandmother and eccentric Aunt Juliet lived on the first floor. The young Robin thus lived an exciting and freewheeling life in the bustling inner city, getting into many a scrape and adventure. It was a time when children weren’t wrapped up in so much cotton wool and discovered the world for themselves.

What chiefly recommends this memoir is Dalton’s snappy portraits, crisp prose and economical dialogue, where she squeezes in a laugh every page about the many characters that crowded her young days in King’s Cross. Aunts Up the Cross paints a vivid picture of what life was like in Sydney’s King’s Cross between the wars. A delightful postcard from an era now long gone.

Aunts Up the Cross, by Robin Dalton. Published by Text. ISBN: 9781925240641  RRP: $12.95

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