Review: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane, Giramondo Publishing

Erich Mayer

This novel features the unselfconscious musings of a mildly eccentric man about to enter happily into early old age.
Review: Border Districts by Gerald Murnane, Giramondo Publishing

Gerald Murnane's Border Districts published by Giramondo Publishing.

This novel, which has been shortlisted for the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award, an award that is supported by the Copyright Agency and delivered by Perpetual as trustee, features the unselfconscious musings of a mildly eccentric man about to enter happily into early old age. How much is autobiographical – Murnane was born in 1939 and is a well known and highly regarded eccentric – does not matter. 

We never learn the name of the narrator of Border Districts, who more than once refers to his musings as 'a report' he is writing for himself and which he avers is not intended for publication. This doubtless liberates him to write – or report –  without restriction his thoughts and feelings on any number of issues. One of these is the harm done by incompetent or unsuitable teachers of young people. He describes, without rancour, the inadequacies of the text books, burdened with poor monochrome illustrations, that were used in schools during his childhood.

But he reserves his greatest criticism for those who believe in a god. His description of his boyhood image of God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit is alone worthy of the Miles Franklin Award. He has little time for priests or for the religious brothers who were his childhood teachers.

It is well known that Murnane has an exceptionally excellent memory so perhaps it should not be surprising that the putative writer of this book should say, 'I had claimed that whatever deserved to be remembered from my experiences as a reader of books was, in fact, safely remembered. I had claimed also the reverse of this: whatever I had forgotten from my experiences as a reader had not deserved to be remembered'. This is a comforting point of view for those of us with more fallible memories.

The narrator also makes it clear that he loves horse racing and uses an old radio to listen to descriptions of races; it is the only electronic device he uses as he has no computer or smart phone.

But even greater than the narrator's fascination with horses is his love of colour. His collection of coloured pencils is not for drawing – it is rather a kind of reference device, where a particular colour might bring to mind a mood associated with it in the past, just as a phrase of music might evoke a recollection. His passion for coloured glass windows has no bounds and he repeatedly recounts the feelings and thoughts he has when looking at these. He treasures the photographs he took of both sides of some stained-glass windows.

It is very tempting to load this review with quotations from Border Districts because Murnane's writing is so beautiful. Certainly, he has lengthy meandering sentences and at time repeats himself. He likes to dance around his subjects, probe at them and leave them, to come back to them again. But the repetition involved has the desired affect of firmly implanting his feelings, his visions, his perceptions, his likes and dislikes into the mind of the reader. 

Murnane ends this book with a quotation from Shelley. At the same time he can't resist having a crack at Keats and Byron, whose poetry he refers to as fatuous and affected. But the quotation from Shelley that follows, and which he says he had 'once found merely decorative', is a fitting close this amazing book.

                    Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,

                    Stains the white radiance of Eternity.


Rating: 5 stars ★★★★★

Border Districts 
By Gerald Murnane

Published by Giramondo Publishing 
Released November 2017
ISBN 9781925336542
RRP $24.95
Category: Fiction


What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer. He now edits the blog