The human dynamic of subcultures was one of Anne Coombs’ preoccupations. She turned it into a skill that guided her activism and philanthropy. Both GetUp! and Rural Australians for Refugees, two of the causes for which she will be best remembered, relied for their success on mobilising people with shared values and beliefs. These movements grew from the deep knowledge of the transformative power of change, one person at a time. Just like the characters in Glass Houses (Upswell 2023).
When an author’s final works are posthumously published there is an inevitable impulse to locate them in the arc of their earlier writing. To look for patterns and preoccupations, to reflect on their motivations, deep-seated questions, and driving curiosity.
Anne Coombs’ novel, Glass Houses, sadly falls into this category. In the final months of her life, as she worked assiduously to get her affairs in order, she devoted some weeks to revising the manuscript of the novel, which she had first drafted 15 years before. At the time she was trying to make sense of some of the perplexing personal ramifications of the time in which it is set – the late 1980s when greed was good and economic rationalism, neoliberalism, ascendant.
The result, Glass Houses, is an elegant publication, with the piquant edge of another time, published by Upswell in May. It has an intriguingly beautiful cover image of a dilapidated, but still beautiful glass conservatory, the promise of ‘gentle satire with a rapier edge’ and suggestion that it is a novel ‘about finding your place of refuge’. It is a tribute to some of its author’s many preoccupations.
Anne Coombs was drawn to the dynamics of subcultures and human interaction in all her writing. She looked for the flaws and the motivations, the things unsaid and the actions that had unintended consequences.
In no small measure this is a product of her upbringing in the Hunter Valley town of Maitland, in what at the time was probably regarded as a somewhat bohemian family, and her later life, with her wife Susan Varga, in the villages of the Southern Highlands. The habits of being an outsider looking in served her well and are evident in this novel.
To my eye Glass Houses reads as a roman a clef – a novel drawn from life, with characters thinly disguised, mashed together as composites, or masked by time. Anyone who has spent time in the eastern suburbs of Sydney will recognise the genesis of some of the central characters. You may have bumped into the immaculately groomed, slightly sozzled dame, smarting under the rules of primogenitor that still apply in some upper class circles, coming out of one of the Darling Point towers; passed the flamboyant antiques’ dealer in Queen Street; the closeted man with a bow tie uncomfortably watching Mardi Gras; the greedy wives for whom enough was never enough; the competitive man on the make overwhelmed by a competitive quest for the next property; the frustrated artists and confused rich kids.
The novel has been well received. Its central conceit – a grand folly by the scion of “old money” to restore a mysterious once-grand mansion in a small village populated by people with secrets – is one that has exercised the imagination of many novelists. In Glass Houses the house is called Glastonbridge. It is a foreboding gothic ruin, on the banks of the River Glass, which evokes the Hawkesbury. Raymond Taylor, the somewhat louche, “confirmed bachelor”, Sydney identity and psychically lost son of pastoral wealth, is the conflicted man with a vision.
The novel is populated with a village full of charmers and misfits, people with secrets and dreams. As befits the style, nothing is quite as it seems.
The process of discovery of the place and the people drives the narrative, although this is more a work of satire than mystery.
The novel is set in the river town, and it is there that the action plays out and the characters reveal more of themselves and the travails that have sent them succumb to the seduction of acquisition. It amplifies the truism that people in glass houses should not throw stones.
While this is a work of fiction, it is evidence of Anne Coombs flexing her insight into the human dynamic of subcultures, the physical environment in which they operate and the give and take of interpersonal tensions.
This was one of her preoccupations. She turned it into a skill that guided her activism and philanthropy. Both GetUp! and Rural Australians for Refugees, two of the causes for which she will be best remembered, relied for their success on mobilising people with shared values and beliefs, especially when they felt under siege from the prevailing established viewpoint. These movements grew from the deep knowledge of the transformative power of change, one person at a time. Just like the characters in Glass Houses.
Anne Coombs’ most important book will no doubt be remembered as Sex and Anarchy, her remarkable retelling of the life and times of the Sydney Push – that group of libertarian anarchists who did so much to define and create the city’s flamboyant self-image. This is a book that should not have been allowed to go out of print. No one has captured an Australian cultural phenomenon with such skill and insight – the characters, their backstories, environments, political debates and sexual choices, come to life on the page.
Although the Push has slipped in the collective memory, its legacy endures. It was crucial to launching hundreds of careers, shaping a certain raffish libertarian Sydney demeanour and fostering rage in a generation of women. As the times changed it ran out of puff. The money that washed into Sydney as the economy was deregulated in the 1980s shaped a new subculture – the one depicted in this novel.
Her next project was Broomtime, which she and Susan Varga wrote after spending a year in the town on the Kimberley Coast. It was a much-anticipated book, bringing to the page the tensions in a small town using the innovative technique of literary non-fiction. It was first published not long after Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil about the trial of a Savannah antique dealer for the murder of a male prostitute became an international best seller and made Savannah, Georgia a must-visit tourist destination.
Unfortunately, Broometime had to navigate Australia’s more stringent defamation laws. The first edition was pulped, some of the characters felt they had been unfairly represented. Literary non-fiction had not taken root here, in the days before memoir became the dominant form, it made people uneasy. By the time the amendments were made and a second edition was released it had lost the launch momentum and been tarnished by scandal. No doubt in time it will be reappraised as an insight into a community that was confronting profound change.
Glass Houses was Anne Coombs’ next attempt to explain small community, class-ridden Australia to itself. In a novel where no characters could claim to be misrepresented. It took a while to emerge, but now completes the trilogy.