In December 1977, I resigned from the public service, resolved to get serious about writing. For three tumultuous years I’d headed the women’s unit in the prime minister’s department, working on women’s policy up to and after the Whitlam government’s Dismissal, a crisis in Australia’s history and a moment of profound disappointment for many public servants. So when I sat down to write my first novel, I named it West Block for the building that housed the department and for the people I’d worked with there. I needed to express my respect for them, with a few noteworthy exceptions.
First published in 1983, West Block was reprinted five times, and in 2020 came out in a new edition. The action takes place in 1977, in the aftermath of the Dismissal. Though it’s never explicitly mentioned, the book tells of its impact on five different members of the prime minister’s department. Their stories are told by Cassie Armstrong, the feminist who heads the Women’s Equality Branch, or WEB. Each of the five bureaucrats, including Cassie, has their own story and appears, Rashomon-like, in the others.
Come 1980, bureaucrats were getting a bad name for themselves, as successive governments politicised the public service and hollowed out its capacity It’s only now with the challenges of climate change – the bushfires, floods and COVID – that Australians are realising why we need a public service with a strong policy role and the capacity to deliver. I think it should be why my publisher suggested bringing it out in a new edition.
I’ve been able to retrieve only some of the review extracts I had on my original website. These appeared in newspaper review sections when the book came out. The later ones appeared on the publication of the new edition.
Copies of the new edition of West Block are available from Booktopia and Amazon.
In addition, Amazon has a digital version of West Block‘s new edition available on Kindle.
“To find a novel which considers contemporary issues intelligently is itself a delight. Dowse attempts more than this – she relates the issues to individual lives and personalities. Her approach to novel writing demands sympathy for people and seriousness about policies.” Canberra Times
“For Dowse the process is the vital and absorbing thing … the business of government, the micro-mechanics of power live in her pages.” Adelaide Advertiser
“Sara Dowse makes great use of irony in attacking the bureaucratic beast . . . she manages to reduce the monster to a manageable scale and dissect it with a fine sense of proportion, humour and humanity.” West Australian
“With sensitivity and humour, she has added features and soul to the faceless image of the public servant.” Australian
“The novel is as timely now as it was in the 1980s, combining, as it does, unforgettable insights into the workings of federal politics with an imaginative study of flawed human lives.” Canberra Times
“Ultimately, West Block pays tribute to the public servants who understand that their role is to be “servants of a nation” not of their political masters. This is the role of the public service, no matter how much its political masters would like to make it otherwise. Unfortunately, this fundamental principle has been increasingly tarnished over recent decades, which makes
re-publication of this novel, now, all the more relevant and, dare I say, necessary“. Whispering Gums