Blanche d'Alpuget Biography
Nationality: Australian. Born: Sydney, 1944. Education: Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School. Career: Journalist, president of the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Oral History Association of Australia. Awards: PEN Sydney Centre Golden Jubilee award for literature, 1981; Age Book of the Year award, 1981, for Turtle Beach; South Australian Government award for literature, 1982; New South Wales Premier's award for non-fiction, 1983, for Robert J. Hawke. Member: Women's Electoral Body; Women's International League for Peace and Freedom; Australian Labor Party; Oral History Association of Australia; Australian Society of Authors. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, William Morris Agency, 1350 Avenue of the Americas, New York, New York 10019, U.S.A.
Monkeys in the Dark. Sydney, Aurora Press, 1980.
Turtle Beach. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1981.
Winter in Jerusalem. New York, Simon and Schuster, and London, Secker and Warburg, 1986.
White Eye. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1994.
Mediator: A Biography of Sir Richard Kirby. Melbourne, MelbourneUniversity Press, 1977.
Robert J. Hawke: A Biography. East Melbourne, Schwarts in conjunction with Landsdowne Press, 1982.
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If it is true, as novelist Tom Keneally has often complained, that Australia lacks middle-brow writers who can write intelligent, absorbing fiction that deals with serious issues in a mature way, then Blanche d'Alpuget is the exception that proves the rule. She writes comparatively conventional novels that nevertheless are highly competent and engaging, show a keen interest in contemporary affairs, and engage with moral dilemmas in an accessible way without being shallow. She was one of the first Australian novelists to realize the relevance of Asia to Australian life and more recently has turned her attention to such contemporary issues as environmental destruction (and extremism in its defense), genetic engineering, and human cruelty to animals.
Monkeys in the Dark is set in Indonesia at the time of the attempted communist uprising but a year or so later than Christopher J. Koch's better known The Year of Living Dangerously. The revolution has been suppressed, Sukarno is still president though his power is clearly declining, and there is uneasy speculation in the air as to whether the communists will attempt another coup. It deals with Alexandra Wheatfield, a rather naive young woman working with the Australian consulate, and her relations with her first cousin and former lover, Anthony Sinclaire, as well as those with the militant Indonesian poet Maruli, with whom she falls in love. Although he does have some feeling for her, Maruli takes advantage of her diplomatic immunity to carry on his revolutionary activities. More wickedly, Anthony tricks her into coming back to him at the end of the novel by blackening Maruli's name. It is a gripping and well-plotted novel that captures the atmosphere of Indonesia in the wake of the uprising, but its pessimistic, even fatalistic, mood is summed up in the extract from a speech by Sukarno that gives the novel its title: "Oh, my people, if you abandon our history you will face a vaccuum…. Life for you will be no more than running amok. Running amok—like monkeys trapped in the dark!"
Turtle Beach is set in Malaysia, with the boat people arriving in the aftermath of the Vietnam War being greeted with hostility by local residents. When two hundred of them are drowned, the fish feed off their corpses and the livelihood of the fishermen is ruined, as people refuse to buy their produce. Ironies such as these abound in the novel. The heroine is again a reasonably attractive (not startlingly beautiful but with a seductively Monroe kind of voice) reporter in her late thirties, but unlike her predecessor, Judith Wilkes is a tough-minded careerist, determinedly carrying on with her work as she copes with a young family and a dying marriage to an ambitious political flunky back in Australia. Yet she has some of the same qualities as Alex: a tendency toward passivity, a weakness for sensual men, and a sense of idealism that renders her vulnerable to manipulation. Like Alex, she falls in love with one of the locals, Kanan, but is finally repelled by the fatalism of his Indian philosophy. Again the title of the novel embodies a metaphor to do with human helplessness in the face of larger historical movements. It comes from the turtles that battle against all odds to lay their eggs and bury them, only to have them dug up and sold or eaten by the local residents.
Winter in Jerusalem follows a relatively familiar format but with decreasing assurance. Its heroine is Danielle Green, a thirty-eight-year-old professional writer widowed after an unhappy marriage and with a teenage daughter in Sydney. She has arrived in Jerusalem to write the script for a film about an uprising of suicidal zealots in 73 A.D. and also to try and make contact with her father, whom she has not seen for many years. Although the novel has many of d'Alpuget's best qualities—her grasp of atmosphere, aphoristic wit, quick snapshots of characters—it is the least coherent and worse structured of her novels, heavily dependent on coincidence of an opportunistic kind. The theme of Danielle's relationship with her father is never explored in any depth and toward the end the action of the novel accelerates toward its upbeat resolution to a point that is almost laughable.
A gap of eight years followed before d'Alpuget published her fourth novel, White Eye, which again broke new ground for her. It is a kind of ecothriller, subsuming concerns the author has often spoken on in interviews in a popular format. Although written in a deliberately plain and simple style the novel has an extraordinarily intricate plot, involving illegal trafficking of chimpanzees between Thailand and Australia, genetic engineering, and an attempt to destroy the world. It opens dramatically with the discovery of the naked body of a woman who has been tortured, then shot. It will be the first of at least eight murders in the novel, some of them quite horrific. The protagonist, Diana Pembridge, is a quintessential d'Alpuget heroine, thirty-two years old, beautiful and patrician in appearance, but vulnerable and unfulfilled in reality. She is a passionate lover of nature without being a fanatic, and some of the finest writing in the novel is devoted to accounts of her falconing and her struggle to heal and release a wounded wedgetail eagle.
Against her is pitted John Parker, a deeply misogynistic man whose disgust with a proliferating human race drives him to invent a vaccine that will prevent it breeding: "He had succeeded in doing what every man, secretly, would like to do: he had created a vaccine that would sterilise all the other men on Earth." D'Alpuget has said that part of her aim was to preach against the excesses of environmentalists, but in Parker she has created not a zealot but a murderously pathological misanthrope with no redeeming qualities except a certain kind of mordant wit: Asked by a woman if he minds her smoking he replies amiably, "Not at all. Smoking helps reduce the population." It comes as no surprise to the reader to discover eventually that he is also a covert homosexual; gays in general get a bad press in this novel. Like all of d'Alpuget's work, White Eye is a carefully and thoroughly researched novel that at times indeed wears its learning a little ostentatiously. It alternates scenes of lyrical evocation of landscape and the beauty of the colony of birds that Diana looks after with descriptions of violence and cruelty. Like Winter in Jerusalem it suffers from a rushed ending in which Diana and a charismatic photographer cum environmentalist meet and fall in love in what seems seconds. D'Alpuget has admitted that she has difficulty in writing scenes of sexual love and this is evident here. The effect of love on Diana seems to be to turn her into a kind of travelling light show: "The colours around her body throbbed and flowed, rose-red, rose-pink, violet around her shoulders, orange around her and around her hands a bright, clear green." However, d'Alpuget does save a couple of ingenious twists in the plot till right near the end.
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