In Driving Into the Sun, Marcella Polain – winner of the Anne Elder Award, the Patricia Hackett Prize, and more – has done an excellent job of capturing the inner emotional landscape of a young girl growing up fatherless in Perth’s outer suburbia in the 1960s. She recreates an era of television westerns and Bakelite phones, a time when Perth residents had just learned to worry about unlocked doors and windows, and when you could buy a house and land for $14,000 – if you were a man. If you were a woman with $13,000, as the novel points out, you needed a man to stand guarantor for the rest.
Young Orla Blest’s main concern is trying to persuade her parents to buy her a horse, until her father dies suddenly. Unable to believe him dead, she awaits his return. Still in primary school, she is given much of the responsibility for looking after her tomboyish pre-schooler sister, Deebee, when her mother has to go out to work full-time. Orla must also deal with the conventional childhood issues of school, Christmas, betrayal by a ‘best friend’, a mutual blackmail pact with her sister, the possibility of miracles, not stepping on cracks for fear of breaking her mother’s back, and the differences between boys and girls. While largely ignoring anything that happens further away than Perth, she is a consistently faithful reporter of the adult behaviour she sees, even when she doesn’t completely understand their fixation on finances, fidelity, and fashion, or their worries about a possible prowler, or a sibling rivalry honed over decades.
Driving Into the Sun deserves to share shelf space with The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea and The Shark Net for its evocative description of Australian childhood in a much-mythologised decade.