A Narrative of Repression: Tracing Origin in David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down

Posted by Timothy Jones on April 18, 2018 in Uncategorized tagged with ,

A Narrative of Repression: Tracing Origin in David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down

By Edith Paton

The setting is Calliope Bay, an isolated town on the edge of New Zealand with an abandoned slaughterhouse looming on the outskirts. The residents are seen only through the eyes of a troubled narrator, an adolescent killer who tries to both navigate and conceal the intentions of both himself and those around him.  By leading the reader on a labyrinthine trail through a summer of secrecy, sex and murder, Ballantyne’s narrator acts as a means of repressing the truth, obfuscating origins and redacting information until the narrative itself becomes an extension of the character’s repressive pathology.  In this blog series I will explore features of narration, setting and cultural context in Ballantyne’s novel to argue that a cryptic space is created at the heart of Sydney Bridge Upside Down (1968).

Sydney Bridge Upside Down is first and foremost, a novel of repression. I make this claim in response to the narrative devices employed which allow a cryptonomy to be invoked.  In the words of Nicholas Rand ‘[t]he procedure [of cryptonymy] is a manipulation of verbal entities […] it suspends the question of truth and falsehood, reality and fiction.’[1]  In this regard the narrator, perhaps unreliable by nature, is positioned to either intentionally or unintentionally conceal and distort certain events, an act deployed with particular effect in Ballantyne’s novel through a disjointed timeline and an ungraspable point of origin. In this series I will argue that Sydney Bridge Upside Down presents the reader with a series of linguistic and narrative repressions which trace back to a moment of catastrophe.  For Harry the result is an inability to confront sexuality and achieve emotional and intellectual maturation, whilst at the same time invoking the Gothic trope of the ‘crypt’.  In this, the first of three posts, I will explore the narrative style which invokes a cryptonymy by withholding origin.  According to Liesbeth Haagdorens ‘the construction of a crypt takes place when a loss […] cannot be admitted as a loss’. The crypt becomes ‘a place in the inside of the subject, in which the lost object is swallowed and preserved.’[2]  Furthermore, in Jerrold E. Hogle’s interpretation of The Castle of Otranto (1764) he claims that ‘[t]he Crypt in the novel tries to provide a belated origin […] but that only means that origins and effigies are the aftereffects of memory-traces which have no genuine grasp of where their process began.’[3]  If the only map to a concealed origin is through memory, then the voice, perspective and memory of the narrator is the mechanism by which we can navigate the cryptic space.


It is through Harry’s narrative voice that the plot unfolds and it is within the opening words that the problematic nature of origin is presented, ‘[t]here was an old man who lived on the edge of the world.[4]  The opening line introduces a narrative style and tone which belies an emotional and intellectual immaturity despite being relayed by an older Harry at a point after the story’s conclusion. The line mirrors the beginning line of a fairy-tale or a children’s story.  The immaturity which permeates the tone and language of the novel not only serves to reinforce the regressive mentality of the narrator, but also allows Ballantyne to highlight his novel’s importance in the context of a broader commentary within New Zealand Literature.  As Ian Conrich observes, ‘[f]or a young country that continues to exhibit a fragile and insecure identity, it is revealing that so much New Zealand fiction is presented through the experiences or actions of an adolescent’.[5]  It is important to note this context as after the simplicity of the opening lines the narration jumps between setting and time becomes disjointed.  The narrative reads like one would expect from the mind of a teenager: simplicity and chaos; innocence and violence; playfulness and hostility.  Through these dichotomies of style and tone Ballantyne accentuates the link between narrator and character, blurring the line between Harry’s repression of experience as a character, and the repressive mechanisms of narrative.

Through the disjointed narration the reader is forced to trace events backwards in order to piece together the fragments which lead to both beginnings and conclusions. This necessity of ‘re-tracing’ is produced as Harry often begins a section of the story at the end rather than the beginning. The result of this constant back-tracking creates a compulsion to locate a point of origin which is repeatedly concealed.  It becomes apparent that this is a compulsion for both the reader and narrator himself.  As he tells the story Harry seems to be retracing memories which had been repressed in order to tell it, evidence for which can be found in his hesitancy to look into the secret room in the slaughterhouse, ‘[i]t must have been the room where they did special things.’[6]  As narrator, Harry already knows what he’ll find inside, but his defence of Caroline, ‘she was the best person in the world’[7] belies the repression of the memory which he must reveal to himself as well as the reader.  In this regard the narrative, and particularly the chaotic dream sequences, almost take on the function of a therapeutic exercise, a catharsis which ultimately reaches a climax as he faces the ‘crypt’ in which the moment of loss is buried.

Ultimately an unravelling takes place after the point in which Harry is forced to confront this moment. Is it, then, that Harry as character and Harry as narrator are inextricable from one another?  His unwillingness to reveal the truth from the start is symptomatic of the character’s repression of the sexual crisis caused by both Caroline and his mother’s affair, two experiences which cause an irrevocable devastation to his subjective masculine and sexual identity.  As Mark Currie argues, one school of thought in the theory of narration is that ‘identity is not within us because it exists only as narrative.’[8]  With this in mind we must consider the final chapter of the novel in which Harry’s mind has deteriorated and the narrative collapses even more-so into delusion and fantasy.  The narrative is made up of memory-traces which are constructed disjointedly and produce an impression of disorganization of thought, harkening back to Hogle’s idea that memories ‘have no grasp of where their process began.’  At this point the reader is forced to question how this disorganised and unstable mind came to narrate the story they have just read.  Yet another ‘beginning’ that must be concealed.

In my next post I explore how Ballantyne conflates the space of the slaughterhouse with concerns of masculinity and sexual maturation. Furthermore I will demonstrate the relevancy of the link between the New Zealand novel and the history of animal slaughter, reinforcing the slaughterhouse in Ballantyne’s novel as a place in which violent histories are buried and concealed.


[1] Rand, N., ‘Translator’s Introduction’, The Wolf Man’s Magic Word: A Cryptonymy, (Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press, 1986) p. lviii

[2] Haagdorens, L., ‘Displacements of Exile in Albert Drach’s Novel’, Exile and Otherness: New Approaches to the Experience of the Nazi Refugees, ed. by Alexander Stephan, (Oxford: Peter Lang Publishing, 2005) p. 258

[3] Hogle, J. E., ‘The Restless Labyrinth: Cryptonymy in the Gothic Novel’, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, vol. 1, eds. Botting, Fred and Dale Townshend, (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 148

[4] Ballantyne, D., Sydney Bridge Upside Down, (Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 2010) p. 99

[5] Conrich, ‘New Zealand Gothic’, A New Companion to the Gothic, ed. by David Punter, (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2012) p. 397

[6] Ballantyne, p. 99

[7] Ballantyne, p. 110

[8] Currie, M., Currie, Mark, Postmodern Narrative Theory, (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011) p. 25

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