Wednesday, 7 March 2018

Book review: Skin in the Game, Sonya Voumard (2018)

This curious and suggestive book is something of a memoir and something of a portmanteau that has the function that it contains a number of different things each of which is of a disparate nature.

As a memoir, it charts the author’s early experiences as a cadet journalist with the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne (where my great-grandfather worked in the 1920s), then her move to the more upmarket The Age, a stint as its Brisbane correspondent, then in Canberra to work in the press gallery, then to Sydney to work for the Sydney Morning Herald. After that she became disenchanted with the culture at the major metropolitan daily and became a freelancer, and then later took up roles in corporate communications. There is mention somewhere here of teaching at the University of Technology, Sydney.

The book, which is evocatively but inconclusively subtitled ‘The Pleasure and Pain of Telling True Stories’, also takes time out to look in some detail at the relationship that can develop between the journalist and the subject, as in the interview subject. More could have been made of this strand of the narrative without the reader becoming fatigued, but Voumard prefers to seek catharsis and chronicle her family’s changing fortunes over the years, specifically that of her mother’s family, who were refugees from war-torn Estonia.

She also becomes a performer in the zeitgeist and the book’s title makes a claim for this while it also hints at the nature of journalism. And then her stories as a young woman working in the media in the 70s and 80s on the frontline of feminism are redolent with the kind of signification that today’s opinion pages accustom us to valuing.

But the book doesn’t eschew sentiment entirely, and ends with a meditation on Kings Cross, in Sydney – where, presumably, the author now lives – and on Camberwell, the Melbourne suburb she grew up in. On the way to these destinations there are stories about her father, who was a journalist and a PR operative, and about her childhood friends. Voumard was born in almost exactly the same year as I was, so some things were familiar, including the holiday vacation to Noumea with school to improve her French. She manages to make the universal personal.

I didn’t know initially what to make of this book or of the persona the author adopts for the purposes of telling her stories and initially I found I struggled to orient myself within its confines so that I could make sense of the material that was being offered for my appraisal. In the end I relented and resolved to just enjoy the scenery on the voyage out there, into the verdant estuaries and harbours of another person’s burgeoning littoral.

Voumard remains a stranger but throughout she is a little like your older cousin who listens to cool music and hangs out with the groovy kids. Her embrace of the alternative counter-culture that came to prominence in the post-war era is touching and I imagined it was an aspect of her life that led to an ethos forged in the absence of tertiary qualifications. Voumard contacted me on Messenger to clarify however, and it turns out she has three degrees. Yet she remains someone who has few illusions about her place in the world. Or about the way the world works. You can’t work out if the disenchantment came before the disappointment or the other way around. Equating the goals of both of the major political parties suits such a jaundiced but self-reliant persona.

I don't know who Voumard's heroes are or what ideals she holds dear so that she can have something to cleave to in the hard times. Most of us have figures or notions extracted from history that help us to overcome the difficult patches that always arrive to test you when you least expect them. Voumard has come to rely, you suspect, on herself, her partner (she is in a long-term same-sex relationship now but doesn’t want to get married), and a small coterie of trusted friends. Ideals and abstractions that might have established a firm foothold in the more productive regions of her intellectual foreshore seem to have failed to do so. Perhaps there was never any time for this in the crush of incidentals encroaching upon the margins of her attention as she progressed.

It would be hard to gain access to such rarefied company as she keeps, although no doubt many have tried over the years. So much water has flowed under the bridge it’s difficult to know where the land ends and the water begins; there’s so much swampy, uncertain ground. For all her vaunted experience, there is however also a slightly disturbing dearth of poetry in the book, as though the edges of old wounds were still raw and disturbingly easy to coax to blood. Her reticence when it comes to examining the journalist-interviewee relationship is symptomatic of the problem at this point in the proceedings. A more ambitious or confident writer might have attempted to make original statements about this key nexus of signification in the public sphere, one that so much that we read for knowledge is based on, and what it means to be entrusted with the secrets that people who talk with journalists might not even freely share with people much closer to their intimate selves.

But I enjoyed reading the passages when Voumard revisits her mother’s homeland with her mother and a sister. (There seem to be more than one sister.) Something about the flavour of this part of the book is every bit as Australian as the account of the refugee resettlement centre that she takes a trip to visit in rural Victoria. You can take the gird out of Australia, it seems, but you can’t take the Aussie out of the girl.

1 comment:

Judy Edmonds said...

Your extensive vocabulary is impressive for someone who is presumably not a native English speaker (thus assumption is based on your language structure, not your name). Now might be the time to bring your punctuation up to the same level.