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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Holden's Performance

Murray Bail

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To purchase Holden's Performance

Title: Holden's Performance
Author: Murray Bail
Genre: Novel
Written: 1987
Length: 367 pages
Availability: Holden's Performance - US
Holden's Performance - UK
Holden's Performance - Canada
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  • Awarded the Victorian Premier's Award for fiction

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Our Assessment:

B : solid novel of Australia, though not quite certain of its ambition

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Australian Book Review . 7/1987 Gerald Murnane
The Observer . 18/10/1987 .
The Times . 6/1/2001 Sophie Ratcliffe
TLS . 27/11/1987 .
TLS . 5/1/2001 Nicola Walker

  From the Reviews:
  • "Holden's Performance disappointed me somewhat after the first eighty pages. Looking back, I see the book was about a hundred pages too long. I hasten to add that I found plenty of clever and amusing pages all through the book. (...) At its best, Murray Bail's novel is a treasury of quaint details from thirty years that seemed rather ordinary while they were passing but seem bizarre now as the life-story of Holden Shadbolt. Yet I nodded and blinked over many of the last pages of Holden's Performance." - Gerald Murnane, Australian Book Review

  • "A cast of perverts and political shysters entertains along the way, but the satirical plays on geography and identity really steal the show." - Sophie Ratcliffe, The Times

  • "Holden's Performance is often rewarding for its unusual perspective on things we take for granted, such as the layout of cities and the makes of cars. Murray Bail's idiosyncratically detached way of rendering fancy into fiction ensures that Holden Shadbolt's adventures are entertaining, but the humour, at times, recalls that well-known Australian icon, Sir Les Patterson" - Nicola Walker, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Holden's Performance is a novel of Australia, from World War II through the mid-1960s. Holden Shadbolt, born 1933, is at its center. He quickly grows outsized -- physically -- but otherwise remains a remarkably blank slate. He personifies, of course, Australia itself.
       Early on Holden's tea-leaves reading mother augurs: "He doesn't have a future". It's not quite that simple though. History is completely open in this still unformed country that is constantly transforming itself. Bail offers some earlier Shadbolt history, leading into his story, but it is the coming of age of the country during and in the decades after the Second World War that are the focus.
       Holden has a sister, Karen, -- a future Miss Australia -- and a mother. His father dies early on. A replacement of sorts comes in the form of Frank McBee, a larger than life presence who establishes himself in the household. An uncle, Vern, who works at a newspaper, is another early influence. At Vern's Holden "acquires word knowledge", while McBee, always full of life and schemes, offers other lessons.
       "Words, words: a flawed, grey-and-white view of the world" dominated Holden's early growth, yet speech or communication never become his greatest skill. Rather he consumes words, reading and observing. Another consequence thereof is his "diet-induced photographic memory". Holden recognizes faces everywhere -- though not, for example, names -- and his memory is considered one of his defining qualities, put to some occasional good use.
       Holden is part of much that happens, but the movers and shakers, the men of action are others. They recognize Holden's talents, and use them, but invariably he drifts on. McBee is the first: a successful scrounger, selling used parts as they are needed, eventually opening a car dealership, he is the successful businessman always looking for the next opportunity.
       The next major figure is Senator (and then government Minister) Sid Hoadley, for whom Shadbolt becomes a driver. Finally, he becomes a bodyguard for visiting foreign heads of state and the like, working for Colonel Light. Along the way he sees all aspects of Australia, much of it neatly conveyed in Bail's observational asides.
       The story moves from Bail's own native Adelaide to Sydney and Canberra (though Adelaide is never lost sight of). Adelaide's transformation from a tram-tracked, criss-crossed city to one without the guiding wires is especially well-done, though Bail captures all the transformations (physical and other) of the nation and its people very well. Even the simplest ring nicely true: "This is Australia, mid-1963...Women had stopped wearing Mondrian dresses."
       Holden's Performance is both dense and loose, with Bail capturing an era in a single sentence and yet also floating across years and allowing spiraling narrative digressions. He seems, ultimately, not certain enough what to do with Holden, who still feels unformed at the novel's end, only 34, packed off for grander things. The novel meanders amiably most of the time, yet one misses a firmer payoff.
       Still, in its details Bail manages a great deal. The unlikely pieces -- a lost toe, a vomit stain, the female form -- are often wonderfully put to unexpected use. And he has a turn of language that, while not always successful, is generally most entertaining. Not that many writers can get away with lines like:

Standing coatless on the site, hands on hips, his red head swaying like a penis, Hoadley opened with the standard line.
       An uneven pleasure that could have used a tighter presentation, Holden's Performance is still a worthwhile, unusual read.

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Holden's Performance: Reviews: Murray Bail: Other books by Murray Bail under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Australian literature at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Australian author Murray Bail was born in Adelaide in 1941. Winner of the Australian National Book Award (for Homesickness).

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