I have a vague recollection (probably faulty) that Nadia Wheatley gave a lunch time talk when I was at university. It would have been sometime between 1990 and 1993. Or maybe it never happened at all.
At that time, all I would have known of her work was My Place, a book following the various inhabitants of the same house over several decades. Recently I watched, and enjoyed, the ABC TV series inspired by the book.
The House That Was Eureka, preceded My Place, but has the similarity of covering two periods in the history of a Newtown terrace house; periods that intersect, overlap and blend in the dreams and experiences of characters from those two periods.
During the Great Depression, as unemployment escalated and rent payments fell into arrears, landlords started evicting tenants who failed to pay up. As resistance to the evictions escalated, the police were increasingly brought in to deal with those refusing to leave. In response tenants were joined by other protestors, barricading themselves into their homes with barbed wire, boarded up windows and doors and tonnes of sandbags. The evictions therefore grew increasingly violent with serious casualties on both sides. This little known historical scenario forms the heart of this novel.
203 Liberty Street is the new home of 16 year old Evie and her family. From the day she moves in, Evie starts to experience strange dreams and noises that seem to be associated with events 50 years earlier when the house was the site of an enforced eviction. Is history repeating or have two time periods merged bringing confusion of identity between the residents of 1931 and those of 1981? Why are the “present day” occupants of Liberty Street moved by the events of the past? To what extent do those past events intrude into their lives and are there links deeper than a common address? And to what extent can the wrongs of the past be turned around?
For some reason this book brings to mind Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Red Shift, both of which involve the intersection of time periods and characters from the “present” reliving historical events, or at least experiencing the emotions of those who experienced the original events. Garner’s books have a clear mythical even mystical quality, but Wheatley’s novel, while utilising a degree of mystery and at times appearing like a ghost story, is set on a historical foundation, giving insight into the real hardships faced by thousands, caused by a situation far outside of their control.
Here is a news report of the kind of event that inspired the book.