Shell ~ by Kristina Olsson

I have to thank Lisa over at AnzLit for highly recommending this book I may never otherwise have heard of.  But I’ve known her for a long time and we share a love of Australian Lit like Patrick  White, Tim Winton, Shirley Hazard,  Kim Scott and others,  so I completely trusted her when she raved about this one, actually comparing it favorably with Dead Man Dance (my review on this site) by Kim Scott!


by Kristina Olsson (Australia)
2018 / 272 pages
read by Melle Stewart – 10h 47m
rating: 8.75 / contemporary  fiction   
(both read and listened)

I Googled for information I knew from blurbs would be relevant before I even started reading, things maybe Australians would know that I don’t,  like about the Sydney Oprah House.  

The story opens with a very short chapter which works as a kind of prologue set in November, 1960 (5 years before the story opens) when Paul Robeson sang to the construction workers of the Sydney Opera Theater while they ate their lunch.  This is true and impressively told – see:  The Austrailian 

In this tiny opening chapter, the reader is also treated to some truly outstanding prose from Olsson setting very high standards for the literary quality as well as the emotional tone of the book as a whole.

The level of word-smithery is a huge draw here lending itself to the ideas of the Opera House architecture with the airy and watery feeling Olsson manages to achieve along with the strong sense of poignancy other reviewers have noted.  .

And there are nicely drawn characters as well,  with quite a lot of heartache in those days of the Vietnam war draft, separations and deaths, while Australia didn’t know if it wanted to reach for greatness or not what with the difficulties and expense of the Opera House.

Pearl Keogh is a motherless news reporter with two younger brothers who were lost to the “system” and grew up to get involved in the War in Vietnam.  The war is something to which Pearl herself is deeply opposed.  And she gets a double whammy because in her mother’s absence, she had been a young surrogate mother for them and that family all fell completely apart  when she deserted them, as well.   So now, a decade after the fact, with the boys eligible. or nearly so, for the newly established draft, she searches for them.

The other main character is Axel Lundquist, a young , Swedish glass artist in love with the idea of the developing Sydney Opera House on which he works making a sculpture. Axel misses his widowed mother but he idolizes the Danish architect Jørn Utzon as a kind of father-figure, a substitute for the one he lost to suicide. Axel lives in his head a lot just feeling and smelling and touching the air and water and sunlight and rain.

Alex and Pearl are both looking for their own identity while grieving their losses and scared for their own private reasons  They find each other (of course) and that story goes on in its own way.  Love has many aspects here.

The themes are interwoven,  reflected off each other one might say, as family, love, loss, nature, the sensitivities of the arts, loyalty,  neutrality in war vs neutrality in injustice,  the price paid by everyone.

I really had no idea that Australia was as profoundly impacted by the War in Vietnam as it was.  No wonder, seriously (!),  Lisa was affected as she was.  I’m not sure I could stand to read a book this intimate about the anti-war effort in the US as it unfolded here.  I was part of that.  But I went into the book thinking it would be historical fiction about the Sydney Opera House and it’s really so much more than that. It makes me wonder how much the stupidity and arrogance  (the very lightest words I can think of) of the US affected people around the world.

Personally,  I was unable to read any books about the Vietnam War for many years (decades) but then I started with Tim OBrien’s The Things They Carried in 2002 or so and went on to Fire in the Lake by Frances FitzGerald (nonfiction).  Those were before I started this blog.  More recently I’ve read Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes. as a group read and The Sympathizer (a truly excellent book!).  Finally this year I read,  the doorstop novel 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster.  There have been others of course where the war was touched on but not central. (links to my reviews on this site)

And Shell is very similar in some ways to All the Light We Cannot See  (Anthony Duerr) as well as The Flamethowers (Rachel Kushner)  as has been observed,  but there are many novels

I think none of them hit the emotional level of Olssen book and had this been set in the US with a foreign artist working on a Martin Luther King statue or something – I would have been overwhelmed.   From the New York Times “Profile” article  of October 26, 2018:

“Ms. Olsson’s writing, Ms. Wyndham (a literary editor) said, ‘is like a prism that refracts dazzling images of the city, its politics and people, light and water and weather.’”


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6 Responses to Shell ~ by Kristina Olsson

  1. Lisa Hill says:

    Oh, I am so glad you loved it too! I had a feeling it would travel well internationally, but then, you never know until readers from beyond our shores tackle it.

    Wouldn’t it be nice if this book broke the Booker Prize drought for books outside the UK and US!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I bought this for my brother’s partner’s birthday (which was yesterday) on the basis of Lisa’s recommendation, but haven’t got it myself! Sounds like I should. Maybe I’ll try to encourage my reading group to schedule it next year.

    Liked by 1 person

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