Giramondo Publishing, 2017, 304 pp, ISBN: 9781925336252, p/bk, RRP AUS$39.95
The very title of Mirror Sydney says a great deal about Vanessa Berry’s take on her hometown. It’s inspired by an aged photograph album found in an op shop, featuring an image of Sydney on the front cover which is reversed – indeed mirrored – on the back. And, just like this optical inversion, Vanessa’s take on Australia’s largest city is so much more than mere reflection.
In Mirror Sydney we accompany Vanessa on her gentle expeditions and memory journeys through the psychic hinterland of the metropolis. Ever curious, ever alert, and always generous, she finds fascinating flashes of forgotten futures. Tempted by suburbs she has never visited, the author is ceaselessly beguiled by glimpses of kitsch, relics of urban lore, and snippets of personal remembrance.
So are we. In the same warm, easy prose of her blog, Vanessa draws us into her explorations through times, spaces and moods that once were but are no more. Indeed, she even provides maps: hand-drawn sketches crafted in loving detail and annotated with anecdotes. History seeps into her stories, but it’s an elusive past – the sort that most of us struggle to retain when waking from a poignant dream. Vanessa’s art lies in caressing those traces back from the edge of memory and thatching them into her tales. “I can only imagine the Magic Kingdom in its prime”, she writes, “in images like those of faded and blurry old photographs” (p85).
There’s a real warmth here, and it’s not simply civic pride. Place is certainly important: her city and its expansive suburbs nestle in the bosom of the book. But what I love most about Mirror Sydney is its method, a pleasant perambulating psychogeography that could re-enchant anywhere, giving the book an appeal well beyond Sydney. The prose is evocative without being ebullient, sensitive to the meanings we imbue in the quotidian filigree of our surroundings.
Eschewing Robin Boyd, who half a century ago decried The Great Australian Ugliness, this book recalls the spirit of Robert Venturi’s seminal postmodern architecture manifesto, Learning from Las Vegas. For Venturi and for Vanessa, delight dwells in the details of urban mundanity. “The recent past still lingers around the present like a shadow, lurking in the shapes of buildings and shop signs, echoing in rumours” (p63).
Buy this book and listen to those echoes.
Reviewed by Dr Peter Hobbins, December 2017
Mirror Sydney is available at all good bookstores and via the publisher’s website here.
You can also explore Vanessa Berry’s blog Mirror Sydney here.