‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson – Australia in 1965: The Sydney Opera House and the Vietnam War


‘Shell’ by Kristina Olsson    (2018) –  249 pages

How would you write a novel about a building, even if it happens to be a spectacular building?

There are two main characters in ‘Shell’. Pearl Keogh is a reporter for a major newspaper in Sydney. Axel Lindquist is a Swedish technician who works in designing and in making glass, and has come to Australia to work on projects related to the Sydney Opera House.

Architect Jørn Utzon from Denmark designed the one-of-a-kind Sydney Opera House. In 2003, Utzon received the Pritzker Architecture Prize, architecture’s highest honor. The Pritzker Prize citation read:

There is no doubt that the Sydney Opera House is his masterpiece. It is one of the great iconic buildings of the 20th century, an image of great beauty that has become known throughout the world – a symbol for not only a city, but a whole country and continent.”

As one of the most popular visitor attractions in Australia, more than eight million people visit the site annually, and approximately 350,000 visitors take a guided tour of the building each year.

The novel ‘Shell’ takes place in Sydney in 1965 and 1966 when the Sydney Opera House was way, way over budget and was extremely controversial. Jørn Utzon left the project in February, 1966.

Pearl Keogh is most concerned about her two younger brothers whom she has not seen in a long time due to her family falling apart after their mother died. Now they are of an age where they could be drafted into the Australian army which the government has decided will fight alongside the United States forces in Vietnam. Pearl participates in demonstrations against Australia’s entry into the Vietnam War. When her newspaper finds out about this, she is relegated to the women’s section of the newspaper.

First off, I must say that I totally agree with Pearl’s sentiments about the Sydney Opera House and the Vietnam War. The Sydney Opera House is a spectacular building, although I have never seen it in person. The United States had no good reason to fight in Vietnam, and Australia did not either. Both countries wound up losing the war.

However I found ‘Shell’ to be a study in heartfelt didacticism. What is missing is lightness and humor. It is strident in its politics. The author is more interested in her argument than her story. Her characters are not well-grounded.

We have the two characters Pearl and Axel. Of course at some point they must meet and get together. A large amount of the fun of a novel would be how they happened to meet. However the author Kristina Olsson skips all that, and the first time we see the two together they are already in bed.

Rather than full-fledged humans, the characters come across as stick figures to represent the author’s points of view.

Many attempts are made in the novel to capture the wonders of the Sydney Opera House. However they wind up being mostly polemical over-writing.

One surface sand-blown and ancient, another imprinted with wire net. Urgency tapped at his shoulders. And fear: the underbelly of art. The thought reverberated in his head: if the final piece revealed anything of this place, of these people, it would reveal just as much of its maker.”

‘Shell’ could have been more down-to-earth and genial toward its main characters. As it is there is too much tiresome abstract generalization.


Grade: B-



3 responses to this post.

  1. Oh, say it isn’t so… I loved this book. I get a warm feeling every time I think about it because it validates my own ‘Vietnam’ experience. If it’s didactic (and I don’t agree that it is), it teaches the generation that came after us about the anguish conscription caused and the way it tore families apart.

    Liked by 1 person


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