Glaston had been in the doldrums for forty years when I arrived. Not so much dead or dying as undecided. Worn down by branch closures and businesses leaving, by farming changes and the fickleness of markets; held up by a solid past and the confidence of those who saw beauty in it. It’s streets are lined with trees – pepper and jacaranda and flame. In November the explosions of purple and red, one after another into the distance, catches you in the throat. And in the summer the pepper trees lean down towards you as you walk beneath them, offering their cool green tips.
I love it when you pick up a book, knowing absolutely nothing about it or the author, and you realise you’ve discovered a real gem. Although, as it turned out, this has been one of the hardest to write reviews in a very long time.
Trouble number one: I read Glass Houses as an ARC way back in February. I held off reviewing it until closer to it’s April pub. date.
Trouble number two: I should have made better notes. But I didn’t foresee the nasty sinus infection that interrupted my thinking and concentration processes for a several weeks in March, throwing all my well-intentioned reviewing plans out the window.
I can tell you WHAT the book is about thanks to the back blurb, “Glass Houses is a gentle satire with a rapier edge, perfectly capturing the socially mobile mid-nineties milieu of city folk with country houses. Anne Coombs’s final novel is about finding your place of refuge and reaching for what you want.”
As accurate as it is though, the blurb fails to capture the atmosphere, the humour and the novelty factor that kept me entertained from start to finish. It’s also a little scary that the mid-nineties is already three decades ago!
I have been wanting to read an Upswell Publishing book ever since they first appeared on the Australian publishing scene mid-2021. I love their unique book sizes (15cm x 21cm) which is basically half an A4 paper and is often the size used for journals and notebooks. But up until Glass Houses I hadn’t found a title that tickled my fancy in just the right way.
Terri-ann White is Upswell Publishing. After a career in the book industry, she decided it was time to build her own publishing list focused on originality and longevity. Based in Perth, W.A., her aim is to,
publish a small number of distinctive books each year in, broadly, the areas of narrative nonfiction, fiction and poetry. I am interested in books that elude easy categorising and work somewhat against the grain of current trends. They are books that may have trouble finding a home in the contemporary Australian publishing sector.
Glass Houses fits the brief exactly!
It began it’s reading life with me at work as a lunch time read. I fell in love with the cover and the atmospheric opening.
For those who follow my Instagram account, you will know my love of jacarandas has become legendary (or monotonous!), so it’s no surprise that the opening lines about the trees caught my attention. I then spent the entire novel trying to work out which country NSW town Glaston was based on. Given that jacarandas and flame trees do not like heavy frosts, I thought it must be a town north of Sydney and the Newcastle area, maybe Stroud? But it could also be Camden on the southern outskirts of Sydney. Both towns are also well-known for their historic houses and parks. As is Exeter in the Southern Highlands where Coombs lived with her partner Susan Varga.
It wasn’t until I was skimming through the book again last night that I had an ah-ha moment. On pg 208 a reference to the Worimi people. A quick wikipedia search revealed that the Worimi or Warrimay people are from the eastern Port Stephens and Great Lakes regions of coastal NSW, ‘extending from Port Stephens in the south to Forster/Tuncurry in the north and as far west as Gloucester‘. Glaston MUST be Stroud, or even Gloucester. I’m glad, because that’s the area I had in my mind the whole way through the book.
The title is very apt as well. It quickly becomes apparent that all the characters are rich in faults of their own, yet willing to criticise others for holding the same faults! They simply cannot help themselves; in fact lobbing stones in glass houses becomes their favourite pastime. It’s also where the humour lies.
Obsession is something all the characters share in common too – whether it’s about renovating an old house, interior designs, gardens, history, books, religious icons, or creating rules about what is heritage and what is not. I do wonder if Coombs and/or her partner got caught up in this world. She writes with authority, critical but amused, the characters are sympathetic if somewhat snooty at times.
I found myself making copious notes about each character and how they were connected to each other. Not quite a family tree but a friendship tree instead. Like so many families though, these friends rubbed up against each the wrong way, sometimes supporting and sympathetic, sometimes critical and cruel.
Our narrator is unnamed and inserts their own thoughts in italics at various points in the story of the others, including Raymond (the owner of the house being restored) and his sister, Lillian (back from New York after the death of her husband). His renovators in Glaston – Clover and Bob, plus various friends William & Robbie, Sally & Titus and Philip Dexter the Sydney based auctioneer. To complete the set, there are the less-than-friendly acquaintances, Theo Roth (Sydney real estate agent and collecter, who desires Raymond’s house), Joan Beaverstoke, the local National Trust person who distrusts everything that Raymond is trying to do with the house, Norma Sells the bookseller and Joan’s partner, Duane the trouble-maker, Brenda Watkins, the newspaper journalist, who just wants to fit in and Rosemary, Sally’s sister, who has plans to turn the house into a guest hotel.
A touch of Brideshead Revisited nostalgia infects the story. It’s also rather poignant and tender as the various characters contemplate their place in the world and how to best live a life of purpose. But mostly, the preservation of historic homes and furnishings is surrounded by personal ambition and vanity. Preserving the past becomes entangled up in self preservation as the thorny question of legacy looms large. Is it possible that your dream home can become a nightmare? When does having all this bespoke, heritage stuff become a burden rather than a pleasure?
The past matters because it never leaves us. The present disappears each and every instant but the past lingers on, growing in our imagination as it fades in our memory.
I loved my time with Glass Houses and hope that if you see it in your local bookshop you will pick it up and consider it for yourself.
- Anne Coombs was one of the founders of Rural Australians for Refugees. She was also a house designer and developer with a passionate interest in sustainable energy and animal rights.
- She lived with her partner Susan Varga in the Southern Highlands.
- Anne Coombs died 23 December 2021.
I had come to Glaston because what I thought of as my future had evaporated. The past looked more inviting. But that wasn’t strictly true. The past was messy, complicated. the only thing about it that was inviting was that it was unchangeable. It was there to be uncovered, whereas my future had become a terrifying void.
Favourite Character: the unnamed narrator, who is trying to get her shit together by hiding away in a small country town. She obviously likes all the characters she shares this story with, and infects the reader with her warmth and kindness.
Favourite or Forget: I already have a weird hankering to reread Glass Houses, so for now it’s a keeper.
Title: Glass Houses: A Novel Author: Anne Coombs ISBN: 9780645536836 Imprint: Upswell Publishing Published: 4 April 2023 Format: Paperback Pages: 272 Dates Read: 17 January 2023 - 22 February 2023 Origin: ARC
|This post was written on the traditional land of the Wangal clan, one of the 29 clans of the Eora Nation within the Sydney basin. This Reading Life acknowledges that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples are our first storytellers.|
17 thoughts on “Glass Houses: A Novel | Anne Coombs #AWWfiction”
Bill will be very pleased with you figuring out where this is set 😉
I’m looking forward to reading this one; I bought a copy on the spur of the moment at Easter, mainly because I was attracted to the cover. Sounds like the contents are just as enticing!
I hope you enjoy it as much as I did Kim.
I haven’t seen any reviews for it or any publicity, so I was very keen to get this post finished and published.
Bill was pleased that Bron (and the author) got it sorted, but his NSW geography east of the Great Divide is very weak.
I’m glad the blurb reminded you what the novel was about, I find them very unreliable and have made the decision never to quote them.
Given that my nearest indie book store makes no effort to promote WA writers and/or publishers I might make my way across the river and see what they have in Mt Lawley (and yes it’s an effort, like shopping in North Sydney).
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That’s a bit sad about your Indie. We work hard to make sure we stock our local authors (when we can) plus support Australian writers in general.
New Edition (the sister to your indie) supports local writers (there are often signed copies on the shelves) but they don’t have a separate section for them and I wonder if it’s just because not enough WA fiction is published. All New Editions’ fiction, including Australian, is mixed in with everything else. I guess there’s two trains of thought about this: does singling them out in their own section “ghetto-ise” local writers? Does putting them in amongst all the world’s fiction show that they are of international standard? I’m kind of in two minds. But I know that I appreciate stores that have an Australian lit section … makes it easier from a buyer’s perspective.
It’s especially hard choosing YA for presents when you can only see their spines. Unless I’m chasing up a book I’ve seen reviewed, I only come across books set in WA by accident.
Paper Bird provides a much more user friendly experience, but it’s a hassle to get down there.
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If and when I get into a novel I too often take notes on characters and their relationships to keep track of interactions etc, so I get what you did here – and also when you wonder about the fictional setting and where it might be modelled on! Great review, and loving the notion of A5 format fiction as an alternative to the usual formats.
As fas as I can ascertain, Upswell is the only publisher using the A5 size at the moment, at least in Australia. I find it very pleaseing for some reason I have yet to unpack!
This does sound interesting! And as a former publishing executive myself, I appreciate that you are supporting this new publishing venture. Keep in mind that you could also request your library purchase a particular title that interests you – most are willing to do so if you provide a good reason.
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Since working in a bookshop (15 yrs in August!) I’m not sure I have been in a library to borrow a book! But I used to consider my local library a second home before that.
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Wow! I tried to put this book on my To Read list on Goodreads, and they don’t even list it!
That was one of the reasons I stopped using GR – only GR librarians can now add books. I believe it’s not hard or difficult to become a GR librarian, but it was one more thing to sign up for, create a password etc and I couldn’t be bothered.
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This sounds great although doesn’t seem to have proper distribution over here at the minute. I try to save reviews till near the publication date but have to either read the book then or write a review then save it up till the right time as I wouldn’t be able to remember enough!
Yes, I should have done that.
But Feb was my birthday month and I was out a lot, then March I was sick, and suddenly several books had got away from me 😀