In the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick, a female narrator, who remains unnamed is trying to come to terms with the absence of Jack, the man she loves. In a bar she meets Bernice, a radio personality, in her late thirties and flirting with IVF. Finding a job as a gardener, she discovers that her co-worker, Mitali, has an unresolved mourning that attracts other deaths into its orbit. Later on, she befriends the resolutely mysterious bar owner, Sarah, and her daughter, Mary, who has, for potent (and as yet unrevealed) reasons, converted to Islam and donned a burqa.
The lives of these women are characterised by love and loss, and are woven together by their shared grieving at the senseless death of local resident Jill Meagher.
On Brunswick Ground traverses the world of longing and personal loss with an assured and literary touch. It is novel that is also heart-warming, and affirming. Catherine de Saint Phalle truly understands the surprising ways in which tragedy and loss can tighten the bonds of friendship and of a community.
Catherine de Saint Phalle has had five novels published in France. In 2003 she moved to Australia because the sky is bigger and the people are warmer. A French tutor, she also curates a small art gallery in Brunswick, where she is ensconced with her partner, a poet and bookseller.
On Brunswick Ground
Author: Catherine de Saint Phalle
Question: What inspired the story of On Brunswick Ground?
Catherine de Saint Phalle: One day a woman to whom I gave French lessons, arrived looking distraught. When I asked her what was the matter, she explained that she couldn't get Jill Meagher's death out of her mind. It wasn't only the tragedy in itself that haunted her. She also felt vaguely embarrassed that the death of a complete stranger should cause her such personal distress. Little by little, we discovered that she had very good reason to feel like this. The deep and direct effect Jill Meagher's death had on so many people was the inspiration for writing the book.
Question: What did you learn most from your research for On Brunswick Ground?
Catherine de Saint Phalle: I learnt about women, the way they react and behave as human beings. I learnt about the feminine, the mysterious feminine that seems to be a healing force that is elicited when a situation can find no resolution, when it can't be fixed. Then a gestation is necessary, then a waiting happens to us, then the feminine starts to produce its effect on men and women alike, until an organic solution is reached which seems to grow out of nowhere.
Question: How were you surprised at how tragedy tightened a community?
Catherine de Saint Phalle: I was very surprised by the community's reaction to the tragedy. Even more progressive values seemed to take hold of Brunswick. People spontaneously looked out for strangers and cared. Suddenly everybody was responsible for everybody else, as if we were on a ship. The place felt smaller, bound by the perimeter around Hope Street. The fact that Jill Meagher's life had ended in a street of that name seemed to symbolise the way tragedy can turn into the opposite of death: a movement towards life.
Question: What did you find most difficult when writing On Brunswick Ground?
Catherine de Saint Phalle: I suppose the plot was the most difficult thing to unravel. For years and years, long before Jill Meagher's death, I knew I wanted to write about the feminine. I tried to, but those pieces morphed into something else. When Jill Meagher was killed and my French student was so distressed by it, suddenly the book was there – in my heart at least. All I had to do was pull out all the threads. But they got muddled up. I knew there was a character with a burqa. It was difficult, finding out why. Then, as I worked, it became obvious that the veiling was the veiling of the feminine, just as Jill Meagher death was the killing of the feminine – but from that death I had to tease out what it brought to us, how it changed us – how the humanity of a woman is an important thing in a community, in a family, in a country – and how only when that humanity is completely expressed can the feminine truly exist and start healing us.
Interview by Brooke Hunter