Review: Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham

To begin with, I want to say what a beautiful object the book Melbourne is. When people go on about the texture, weight, feel and smell of real books in the e-book debate, this is the book they mean. Melbourne, written by Sophie Cunningham and published by New South Books, is exquisite. A small, solid hardback, its elegant dustcover sheaths a simple cream cover embossed in gold. It looks like a book made for princes. The inside cover is an old-style map of Melbourne with icons highlighting features of the city. The pages are thick, rough-edged paper which provide a real tactile joy.

An object as lovely as this book ought to have magic in its pages, and it does. Sophie Cunningham’s tale is part memoir, part ode to the city. I began by thinking the story was like some densely woven cloth, linking the past and present, connecting people and events across the city and time, but cloth is flat, and this story is deep and rich. So the Melbourne of these pages is more like close-growing plants whose roots go deep and intertwine, and whose branches and leaves mingle equally above.

It’s all a pretty poetic approach, but what the hell—the book has a beauty and poetry that go beyond saying “this is a neat and evocative book about Melbourne and its history”.  Cunningham’s personal history is revealed along with the city’s own story, and her emotional response to the places and people therein give the book real life and depth. Some of her experiences tally with or even cross over with mine, adding an extra tang of resonance.

Her story is full of extracts from essays, novels, emails and articles. The seasonal chapters flow from topic to topic, so that you may start with fruit bats in the gardens and end up at a book exhibition by way of Barry Humphries, football, TISM, indigenous history, Australian TV of the 1960s and the Victoria Markets. And every step leads logicially from start to finish. Along the way she talks about things I knew only in passing or not at all, adding to my own stash of knowledge about my adopted hometown.

New South has produced a number of books that give personal accounts of Australian cities, including the award-nominated Sydney by Delia Falconer. Cunningham’s Melbourne will surely be on upcoming lists. It sings a song of home to those of us who love this place, and perhaps may even explain that love to people who come from anywhere else.

Get Melbourne by Sophie Cunningham from New South Books  or from Readings, which also has it as an e-book.