2010, 296 p
I’m not going to give this book a star rating (something I’ve only started doing recently anyway). I really don’t know what I’d give it. I very nearly didn’t finish reading it, and that is unusual for me: I usually hang on to the bitter end once I’ve started a book. But I found this book very disturbing and unrelievedly painful and I did not enjoy the experience of reading it at all. Is that powerful writing? Probably. Did I want it to go on for even one page longer? Definitely not.
The story is written in two strands. One is in the voice of eight-year old boy, an only child, whose family fosters other children as well. They have been recently joined by Robert, an older boy. The second voice is that of the same boy, now twenty-eight, returned from Canada because his mother is dying of brain cancer. Significantly, we don’t ever learn what the narrator’s name is, and although the voice of the child and the man are distinctive, the pain, injury and jealousy throbs through both narrative strands equally. A damaged and damaging child: a damaged and damaging man.
In the acknowledgments at the back of the book Bauer mentions that the book had an earlier incarnation as a short story. Maybe a book so lacerating should remain in a small format- a 190 page novella perhaps. I did not want to keep reading, and I just wanted the pain, all round, to stop. I tired of the scatological references to wee, the poo and doodles by the young boy and I shuffled uncomfortably at the violence and warped thinking of the man. I didn’t want to be with any of these people.
I see that it has been long-listed for the Miles Franklin. I’m not sure. In fact, I was quite positive that it was set in England- to me it had all the hallmarks of the archetypal ‘gritty BBC mini-series’- and I was surprised flipping through the book later to find that there is no real indication of where it is set. Its oppressiveness, the hedged garden, the upstairs bedrooms, all signalled England to me. I don’t think that the Miles Franklin is the right award for this book.
I am sure, as Lisa at ANZLitlovers point out, that this book would spark a lively discussion in book groups. However, thinking of my bookgroup ladies, I suspect that if I, not usually so disturbed by a book, found it difficult to continue then they even more would baulk at such unmitigated pain.