REVIEW: Shell by Kristina Olsson

In brief: In Sydney in 1965, the harbour appears calm but there is a strong undercurrent. The Sydney Opera House is being built with daily controversy and anti-war sentiment is growing.

The good: The words are exquisite.

The not-so-good: I devoured this beautiful book.

Why I chose it: Thank you to Simon & Schuster for the gorgeous hardcover.

Year: 2018

Pages: 374

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)

Setting: Sydney, Australia

Rating: 10 out of 10

A book like Shell doesn’t come around every day, nor every year. This book is beautifully, tenderly written with every word crafted with an eye for detail. It is as admirable as the Sydney Opera House (the building of which is a major plot device) and as breathtaking as the glass sculptures crafted by Axel, one of the main characters. I can’t think of a better story to launch the Scribner Australia imprint. This is going to be an imprint to devour if Shell is any indication of the beauty and quality of the storytelling.

Shell describes two major occasions in Australian history, neither of which have been deeply explored in fiction to date. The first is the building of the Sydney Opera House, which for many Australians has just been there forever (myself included). It’s amazing to think that in the 1960s that it wasn’t finished with both the media and government attacking the project daily (and that was before social media). The second is the anti-war movement as Australia sends troops to Vietnam with protesters organising large scale disruption. Through the eyes of the two main characters, Pearl and Axel, both become personal.

Pearl is involved in the anti-war campaigns, but has had to take a backseat after being photographed during a protest has moved her career backwards from news journalists to the women’s pages. She’s still secretly involved, with a link on ‘the inside’ but her main motivation is much more personal. Her two brothers, who she feels she failed after they were placed in an orphanage, are of drafting age. Pearl doesn’t know where they are, but she wants to protect them at all costs. Axel has come from Sweden to work of glass sculptures for the Opera House. His hero is the architect, Jørn Utzon. He is desperate to meet Utzon and explain how his design for the Opera House makes him feel. Axel can’t understand the controversy and resistance against the project. This extends to the way some Australians act – it’s foreign to him. When he meets Pearl, little do either of them realise they have a lot in common. Missing, broken families and a desire for change.

Kristina Olsson’s writing is exquisite. Like how Axel sees the Opera House, it is art. Every detail of this novel is planned and executed to the finest detail. You will want to savour every single word, picture every scene and reflect on the conversations between characters. Although it’s not a long book, Shell should not be skimmed over quickly. This is a novel that reminds us of why we read – for the beauty and creation of worlds in our mind. Simply put, I loved this novel. I hungered for every detail about Pearl’s family and Axel’s sculptures. I loved the glimpses into a Sydney that is so different – slower and simpler – than today’s speedy metropolis.

Shell will not disappoint. I’ve overjoyed that this beautiful, Australian story will be shared with the world.

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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: Shell by Kristina Olsson

Add yours

  1. Huzzah for Australian literature coming to the US market! Even though it’s slightly out of my comfort zone by the sound of your wonderful review I’m going to love it. Onto the TBR it goes!

  2. The cover of this book is absolutely beautiful, so very delicate. I remember all the dramas re the design and building of the Opera House. It was also a time of unrest re the Vietnam war. It sounds as though She’ll has captured it well.

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