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Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong

 Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong

When walking home from dinner one night, my husband and I were hounded by a group of drunk youths who bellowed at my husband to go back to where he came from. This was only two years ago. I also remember as a teen in the late nineties being accosted by a drunk man while waiting for my train. He shouted at me, calling me a bloody wog.

Australia is a country of migrants, an ethnic melting pot of all sorts of backgrounds and cultures and languages and lifestyles. Were also a country famous for our racism, and despite how often the phrase tolerance, a loaded term in itself, is bandied about, theres a seething undercurrent of paranoia and suspicion thats scarcely covered by a blanket of civility. Its telling that in both the situations mentioned above alcohol was involvedalcohol is, after all, a truth serum.

Diane Armstrongs fourth novel'Empire Day takes us back to 1940s Bondi, a time rife with racial and cultural conflict. Large number of migrants have arrived from Europe, bringing with them unfamiliar customs and languages that rankle the locals, who fear their way of life being set awash amongst a wave of foreignness. With the memory of WWII still fresh, fear and suspicion are palpable, and these New Australians bring with them an unknown factor that immediately sets the locals on edge. Without knowing who they are and what theyre saying, they argue, how are we supposed to know whether theyre with us or against us?

Armstrong narrows her focus to the residents of Wattle Street, who fall into the groups of the white Australians, or their new migrant neighbours. Within these groups, of course, is a diversity of experiences rather than the homogeneity they may seem to comprise at face value. The white Australians represent different classes and religions, and these come into play as a way of signalling the divisions that have long marked this country. The migrant groups, too, are separated by language, religion, and war-time experienceand when Armstrong extends her focus beyond the street, we can see a further division between those migrants who have experienced the war in Europe, and those who experienced it within an Australian context.

The migrant experience is one thats necessarily complex, and for every individual theres an individual story. Armstrong creates a careful, thoughtful picture of these experiences from both the perspectives of those new to the country and those who arent. The book is rife with miscommunications, misunderstandings, and differences of approach and belief, but there are also those who seek a common ground, or who choose to reach out even when there is no evidence of that common ground.

The novel is many-threaded, with the plethora of point of view characters used to provide both the depth and breadth 'needed to navigate these stories in a balanced manner, and although some characters do become lost in the dense fabric of the book, Armstrong largely manages to keep things intertwined enough that its easy to keep on track.

Probably the key plot-line is that of journalist cadet Ted, whose role on a local rag affords him the opportunity to be able to explore the migrant context, and the discrimination levelled towards migrants, in a meaningful way, and whose stilted love affair with a young Latvian girl highlights the cultural negotiation involved in bridging two very different life experiences. Theres also Sala, whose wartime experiences and resulting Stockholm syndrome continue to haunt her, and who is also wrestling with how to begin her studies in this new country. Theres the taciturn, reclusive Mr Emil, who lives in a sort of self-imposed exile from a guilty conscience over his war-time choices; and theres Hanias mother, whose own forced decision-making during this time continues to torment her. And theres single mother and bartender Kath, and the angry and seemingly vindictive spinster Ms McNulty, both of whom have been outcast in their own way throughout their lives.

Its a lot to keep track of, but these various narratives are cleverly interwoundsometimes, admittedly, too much so. Armstrong manages to make sympathetic all of these characters, no matter how diverse their backgrounds and personalities. Yes, theres an amount of romanticism here, and as the book progresses some of the subplots take on a soap operaesque tone, but character is king, and this is something at which Armstrong excels.

Perhaps what is most keenly felt here is the fact that'everyone within this bookand in Australiais an outcast in some way, and that those dividing lines can be drawn so arbitrarily. Whether its due to language, culture, red colour, religion, occupation or disability, its easy for a society to become one where everyone is maligned for their differencesbut the flip side of the coin could be just as easily embraced instead.

Although I felt that Empire Day'ended a little too abruptly and tidily given its breadth of scope and the time put into building its characters and setting, its a rich, enjoyable read filled with relatable characters and insights into post-WWII Australia, and one Id recommend.'

Rating: star Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrongstar Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrongstar Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstronghalfstar Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrongblankstar Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong (very good)

With thanks to Harpercollins Australia/4th Estate for the review copy

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Other books by Diane Armstrong:

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong Book Review: Empire Day by Diane Armstrong


  1. shelleyrae @ Book'd Out /

    I enjoyed this book as well, I had never heard of Empire Day before reading it.
    I am sorry your husband, and you, experienced such harassment.

    • Stephanie /

      Neither had I, Shelleyrae!

      Its so odd to come across that sort of overt racism, but I guess certain people need somewhere to direct their fear and insecurity. Its definitely a problem more in certain areas than in others, thoughalthough I was really surprised to hear those sorts of sentiments coming from a bunch of todays teens. I wouldve thought theyd be completely blind to racial differences!

      • shelleyrae @ Book'd Out /

        Sadly, the parents of those teens probably arent.

        • Stephanie /

          Exactly. And we live in a fairly well-to-do, private school-dominated area where everyone drives a Mercedes (except us!), so I can imagine exactly what those parents are like

  2. Sounds like an interesting and thought provoking read. I think most every feels like an outcast at some point, which can hopefully be a point of connection for people instead of a point of divide.

    • Stephanie /

      It really is an interesting one, Jami, and timely, too, as Australia is currently engaged in yet another debate over whether to allow refugees on to our shores. Unfortunately the powers-that-be arent up on the idea of compassion.

      The Australian identity is such an odd one. Ive heard so many people say that Australian doesnt even have a culture or identity, and yet on the flipside, there are so many people who seem to be fighting against any potential change to this perceived absence of culture.

  3. Unfortunately for some, it is the nature of life that things change. It is sad when the desire to keep things the same results in racism, bigotry, and hatred.

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