book review: Wall Street’s meltdown gets personal

Review by Jessica Irvine

Elisabeth Wynhausen
MUP, 219pp, $29.99

A journalist who lost her job captures the emotions behind the global financial crisis.

What if Australia had a recession and nobody noticed? That is the question posed by the journalist Elisabeth Wynhausen in The Short Goodbye: A Skewed History of the Last Boom and the Next Bust. A victim of the global financial meltdown, Wynhausen has used her newfound freedom to assemble a collection of first-hand interviews and anecdotes chronicling the sights, sounds and emotions of the crisis.

Take the Italian-born Panfilo Di Lullo, who, after moving to the north Queensland town of Ayr as a boy, spent 39 years working as a boilermaker only to watch a $2 million share investment disappear.

While strictly speaking nonfiction, Wynhausen’s elegant prose means this book has the feel of fiction. But like the financial crisis itself, if it wasn’t real, no one could make this stuff up.

Wynhausen passionately wants readers to know there was a recession in Australia in late 2008 and early 2009, whatever convenience the nation’s political leaders have found in pretending it didn’t happen. While avoiding a “technical recession” of two quarters of economic contraction, Australia’s jobless ranks swelled by about 60,000 in March 2009 – the month when Wynhausen lost her job. And contrary to popular perception, it was not just high-flyers in the finance sector, although Wynhausen has talked to them, too, recounting the story of former Lehman Brothers employee Natasha Rogoff, who, having been on the trading floor the day “all hell broke loose”, swapped finance for selling handmade pasta sauces with her husband. Wynhausen also records the stories of the manufacturers and tradespeople whose bosses used the crisis as an excuse to get rid of staff.

In her previous book, Dirt Cheap, Wynhausen went undercover to work for a year on the minimum wage to trace the lives of the working poor. She has undertaken a similar level of painstaking research for this book, travelling the world – from manufacturing plants in Sydney’s western suburbs, to London’s centre of high finance, Canary Wharf, standing on a base of alluvial clay on which no previous generation of engineers had ever dared build, to sleepy Ayr, where unscrupulous financial planners persuaded pensioners to sink millions of dollars into the sharemarket. She recounts how these investors forked out up to $14,000 each for a lavish trip to South Africa with their financial adviser, only later to find out that Lehman Brothers had collapsed as they surveyed Victoria Falls.

Also similarly to her first book, Wynhausen becomes a character herself, railing at Centrelink staff who insist she fill out form after form, “a maze of such stupefying complexity”. She begins with a fly-on-the-wall account of her sacking by the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell. The paper, in her view, had “moved steadily to the right” during her 14 years there, engendering a “dispirited compliance” among reporters who “would be instructed to find the evidence for something he [Mitchell] – or [editor Paul] Whittaker – insisted was happening.”

Freed from such constraints, Wynhausen has obviously revelled in the chance to return to the old-school art of the “case study” – telling the story from the personal perspective, a task increasingly farmed out to juniors on daily newspapers. In doing so, she captures the human emotions that drove and emerged from the crisis: the greed, the pride, the sense of invincibility that brought us undone once and could do again.

If I had any quibbles with The Short Goodbye, it was with structure. Each chapter is devoted to a different aspect of the crisis, making it feel a little disjointed. But by the end there is a compounding effect as each of the separate stories builds to reveal the breadth and depth of the crisis. It is almost as if the world has just emerged blinking from it as if from a dream, to ask, “Did that really just happen?”

Yes, Wynhausen reminds us, it did. And if we don’t truly face up to it , it will happen again.


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One Response to book review: Wall Street’s meltdown gets personal

  1. Magpie says:

    I didn’t know of this author and her books.

    Sounds like a very good read. Thanks for an interesting review!

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