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Thursday, 28 March 2019

Book review: Hell Has Harbour Views, Richard Beasley (2001)

This legal drama is a rare thing: a novel about working in an office by someone who knows what it entails in reality. Unfortunately, for the first part of the book the poetic vision is rather flat, endorsing a sort of “practicing law is a meaningless pursuit” view of the profession that might flatter punters in the broader community but that doesn’t really work very well for a work of fiction. It certainly doesn’t help you to like the main character, whose name is Hugh Walker and who lives in an apartment in Woollahra.

Contributing to the book’s two-dimensionality in its early parts is the fact that there are virtually no children in it. You rarely get to see the kids of any of the associates or partners whose conduct provides Hugh with so little spiritual nourishment. It seems to me a weakness in the book’s design that the only thing you get to see are people’s professional lives.

Things get more interesting with the appearance out of the blue of two plot devices. One is to do with the professional life of the protagonist and involves an affidavit that he is asked to produce in order to settle a dispute between some of his firm’s partners. The second plot device that saves the book’s poetic vision from a fatal case of insipidness is Hugh’s meeting a young woman named Caroline.

Before the addition of these two structural elements, the beginning of the book is a desultory series of episodes that are linked by little beyond a feeling that the hero of the book is wasting his life. This episodic section of the book is a slog to get through and I have to admit that several times during this part of proceedings I was tempted to just put the thing down without finishing it.

Things turn around soon enough, so that you get involved in drama which is given depth by some good secondary characters such as Hugh’s mother Pam who is a Legal Aid lawyer. Several other people are included but for many of these the hooks for their individual identities are not very strong, so when they are mentioned a second or third time you are sometimes at a loss as to who the author is talking about. This failing extends to the feuding partners, as well, which to me seemed like a rather unfortunate shortcoming. Hugh’s journalist friend Jim never succumbs to this weakness in characterisation, fortunately for us, and he goes on to have a pivotal role to play in the book.

Another failing that the book has is that at points it assumes the reader has an intimate knowledge of the law’s operations. When you are asked to turn your mind to the “plaintiff” and the “defendant” you are being asked to participate in the same kind of thought process that a judge or a barrister (Beasley is one of the latter) engages in on a regular basis on any working day. But it is hard on such occasions for the layperson to follow who is winning and who is losing. The ends are neatly tied up at the end of these passages, but you are frequently at a loss to know how the author managed it and when this happens you rather feel as though you have witnessed a magic trick. Better editing might have saved readers from feeling they have lost control of the material in front of them.

Once the book hits its stride at the core is Hugh’s disenchantment with life. He has a job with the country’s leading law firm but he finds his existence to be meaningless. He is involved on the side of big business against defenceless individuals and this makes him hate himself. The way that he extricates himself from this impasse constitutes the genius of this mostly entertaining book. The plot thickens by increments until, with a snap, pressure is released for Hugh, who has a tendency to try to avoid conflict that serves him well (in some cases) and that gets in the way of his happiness (in others).

The author’s deployment of fictional characters drawn from popular culture is, however, like Hugh’s love of the Beatles, a bit tiresome. More thought on the author’s part might have relieved the reader of some stale analogies and repetitions of a single theme. As for high culture, Polonius wasn’t stabbed while he was in a cupboard. It’s not a major error but it sort of emblematises something about Beasley’s attitude to his literary referents. Close enough seems to be good enough.

This is a strong Sydney book, drawing on notable locations for their particular significations and for the sort of colour that helps to give life to a work of fiction. The southern, low-rent part of the city is where the law firm Hugh worked for straight out of university is located. One day he meets with a witness on a boat on the harbour and is forced to change out of his suit and into a pair of too-large bathing trunks. There are topless women bathing and bubbling glasses of Krug. There is a scene at Royal Randwick Race Course that suggests Hugh’s taste for wagering is shared by Beasley. And Jim and Hugh meet for drinks on several occasions in one or another of Sydney’s trendy watering holes, places young people gravitate to after work every Friday night to wind down after a week spent in the office.

Then there is the concrete-and-glass tower in which Hugh’s firm has its offices, a building that is something like a panopticon, with rooms facing each of the cardinal points: east, north, west, and south.

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