by Sea Gudinski
It’s 1999 and teenager Rhiannon Karlson is at constant odds with her Mother, Meredith, whose outlook on life could not be more different. Her Father, George, although an interestingly eccentric character mentally dropped out years ago and provides little support. Rhiannon’s sole enjoyment comes from playing drums with her friends in their band, The Descendants. On the eve of the band’s big break in San Francisco, she takes a decision that will see her travel back thirty years…
1969: A Brief And Beautiful Trip Back is a work of staggering creativity, insight and historical depth. It is difficult to digest that this is a debut and also that Ms Gudinski was not present during the late 60s. Rhiannon and her friends are typically disenfranchised late teens but the writing is so accomplished that you sense this read is going to be elevated far about the normal coming of age fiction. Despite not being present for the majority of the book, her 90s friends are clearly realised and the dialogue is convincing. Rhiannon, as central character is both vulnerable and slightly emotionally aloof at this stage. Then, we travel back to 1969. Rhiannon finds herself as drummer with The Day Trippers, an original band who eventually find themselves in Los Angeles on the cusp of fame. The band members, Mary-Jane, Space, Billy, Bobby, Al and their muse, Faye, are brilliantly and singularly portrayed. Al, in particular, gives some fundamentally intelligent and penetrating observations on the human condition and Rhiannon’s development is authentic and nuanced. She enters 1969 as a bewildered, one note teenager and emerges as a damaged yet ultimately rounded young woman. Ms Gudinski’s understanding of the 60s counterculture and its fundamental ethos is astounding and only matched by the creativity and profundity of her prose.
There are many books that encompass beat generation/counter culture wannabes and their psychedelic adventures, but this book, while giving the reader that hallucinatory and esoteric narrative, is also concerned with bestowing the experience rather than simply reading it. Further, not only do we embrace all the lovely, shimmering elements of the hippie ideology without it being cliched and soppy; the reader is slowly made aware by creeping conflict and foreboding of the darkness that unfortunately undermined this ideology. The unravelling of Bobby is one of the most relentlessly awful and brutally visceral written descents into drug addiction that I have read.
Ms Gudinski pitches the 60s timing so that we encompass the moon landing, Woodstock, The Manson Family and Altamont providing, as it did, the violent end to the 60s and its flower power, peace and love philosophy. These are not just tacked on events but explored and interwoven in a really intelligent, knowledgeable manner. The Day Trippers journey to Woodstock in The Trips Mobile is brilliant and where the book is strongest. Her description of Woodstock; it’s music, effects and consequences are so immersive and immediate. Personally, I did think when Rhiannon ‘lands’ in 1969, the narrative lost a little pace and plot for a while which did make the book a shade overlong; Rhiannon’s stream of consciousness riffs can become a touch repetitive. I was also not entirely comfortable with the end twist involving Meredith although I thought it worked well in regard to Al and the conclusion was amusingly clever.
1969: A Brief And Beautiful Trip Back is a rich and vivid work from a writer of outstanding ability and imagination. Highly recommended.