Friday, September 23, 2011

Empire Day by Diane Armstrong

A heart-warming novel in the tradition of CLOUDSTREET and THE HARP IN THE SOUTH

Empire Day, 1948. A back street in Bondi is transformed as the fireworks of Cracker Night cast a magical glow over its humble cottages. But Australia as a whole is being transformed in this postwar era and the people of Wattle Street know that life will never be the same again. The ′reffos′ have moved in, and their strange ways are threatening the comfortable world of salt-of-the-earth locals like Pop Wilson, deserted mum Kath and sharp-tongued Maude McNulty.

With suspicious and disapproving eyes, the Australians observe their new neighbours -- mysterious Mr Emil, fragile young Lilija and all the other Europeans starting their lives afresh. Mistrust and misunderstandings abound on both sides. To Hania, an angry teenager struggling to cope with her hysterical mother, and to Sala, an unhappily married woman trying to blot out her traumatic wartime past, the Australians appear enviably carefree.

But behind closed doors, Old as well as New Australians suffer secret heartaches. As the smoke of fires past and present gradually disperses and the lives of the two groups entwine, unexpected relationships form that bring passion and tragedy for some, and forgiveness and resolution for others.

EMPIRE DAY is a dramatic and heart-warming novel in the tradition of CLOUDSTREET and THE HARP IN THE SOUTH. It confirms Diane Armstrong as one of our most gifted and compelling storytellers
Each year, one of my goals is to read more Australian authors. This year is my most successful year so far and I am pleased to say that I can now add Diane Armstrong to my list of new to me Australian authors.

This book covers the events in the lives of the people who live in Wattle Street in Bondi in Sydney for one year, starting on Empire Day. Whilst there are several residents that have lived in the street for many years, there are also the new arrivals - refugees from the war in Europe. The make up of Sydney's population was rapidly changing in ways that we take for granted now, especially in terms of the impact that they made in helping the city to become more cosmopolitan. For example, at one point one of the Australian characters mentioned about the strange new delicatessens that were starting to appear where you could go and buy your cured meats and cheeses, something that now we take for granted!

Among the various residents we meet Hania and her mother who have recently immigrated from Poland, the Ukrainian family whose young daughter falls in love with the Australian boy Ted who lives with his mother down the street. There is also a young married couple who have moved into a room and the mysterious Mr Emil who keeps very much to himself, causing others to think he is behaving very suspiciously. One of the other major story lines concerns the single mum Kath who holds down a job as a barmaid whilst single-handedly raising her boys, a job made even harder when the eldest of the boys, Meggsie, comes down with polio.

One of the major strengths of this book is it's portrayal of Sydney at a particular place and time. There were several significant historical events that were covered in the pages of the book, as well as topics like the terrible disease of polio and the treatments that were just starting to be used.

Each of the sets of characters get their time to tell their story - where they have come from and what they have seen, where they would like to be going to. Some of the stories are stronger than others. I was particularly moved by the stories of the new Australians, struggling so hard to try to fit into their new lives.

At the same time though, the fact that there were so many stories, so many characters to get page time became one of the weaknesses of the book in that characters would just disappear for pages at a time and then suddenly pop back up on the radar.

Not too long ago I posted about a Melbourne Writers Festival event that I went to where one of the points that was made was about the relationships between characters and place and about how characters who are living displaced lives  are very much charged by loss and by memories of the past. These characters also bring their previous places to where they currently reside through their memories and the past shapes their current lives. For me this book perfectly represented this! There were the newly arrived immigrants who had left behind the traumatic events of World War II but bought the residual fears and memories. Even for those Australian characters there were past events that were very much affecting their current lives. For me, this aspect is a very interesting one when authors choose to explore it!

As I read this book I could not help but draw parallels to the immigrant experience being shown through the pages of this book and the current political situation. It is astounding to think that for a country that often prides itself on the welcoming and tolerant attitude towards multiculturalism, much of the propaganda and attitudes have stark parallels with the immigration questions of today. I don't doubt that this was a deliberate choice on the part of the author.

I did spend a lot of time as I was reading this book wondering why on earth the title wouldn't be something to do with Wattle Street, so I was glad that this issue was resolved towards the very end of the book!

This is my first time reading Diane Armstrong, but I intend to read more and it was a good, solid read. I liked her voice, I liked her characters and settings and I am looking forward to exploring more of her work.

Rating 4/5

Thanks to Netgalley and Harper Collins Australia for the e-galley.


  1. I don't know her stuff and I'm not sure why not. This looks like something I'd really enjoy.

  2. It is only very recently that I read my first book set in Australia, and I found it to be a very thought provoking read. It certainly made me want to pick up more books in the same vein, and I am really glad that I have you to point me in the right direction when it comes to books written by Australian authors. This book sounds like it might be a contender!

  3. I thought Ted's girlfriend was from Latvia? (Sorry, I get picky about Eastern Europe). There wasn't any Ukrainian characters playing a major role.
    In retrospect, I think there were a couple of historical flaws in this book, but it was still a good story.

  4. I thought that there were some Ukrainian characters, but I think you were right that Ted's girlfriend was Latvian.

    Zibilee, if you want recommendations let me know. I will have a few for you!

    Pam, I am not sure if she has been published outside Australia or not. This is the first time I have heard of her too.