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Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp (David Sornig, Scribe)

David Sornig’s Blue Lake creates a strange and layered depiction of Melbourne over time, told through the history of an overlooked place and its seemingly insignificant inhabitants. The book has three overlapping elements: the author walking the ‘zone’ beneath the Westgate and Bolte bridges in Melbourne; the largely destructive history of this area; and the story of three people who lived there last century—Elsie Williams, a singer of Afro-Caribbean descent; Lauder Rogge, a former German naval officer; and Jack Peacock, an eventually successful scrap and horse trader. As troubled outsiders, Williams and Rogge are progressively pushed from society, and we feel how trapped they become. Sornig uses the shifts in time, along with his own personal insights, to contemplate the way a city physically and culturally folds back on its past. Some of the elements are more engaging than others, but Sornig is entirely in control when he gets hold of a good story. There are some incredible snapshots of Melbourne’s history here: a bonfire of surplus pianos in 1914; a soldier returning from war, walking into the swamp, drowning himself. For a book with such fine-grained local history, Blue Lake is unusually searching; its indirect nature and focus on memory has traces of the elegance of V S Naipaul, W G Sebald and Annie Dillard.

Oliver Driscoll is a Melbourne bookseller and co-runs the Slow Canoe Live Journal


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