‘The Mary Smokes Boys’ by Patrick Holland

2010, 239 p.

Rather odd name- The Mary Smokes Boys– until I realized that ‘Mary Smokes’ is the name of a country town in Queensland in which the book is set.  The author of this book, Patrick Holland, hails from Roma, inland of Brisbane in Queensland, and in writing this book, he combines his childhood hometown with that of Esk,  the fictional home of the comediennes The Kransky Sisters. In my head when reading this book, I thought of the cold nights of  Toowoomba and those small country towns with their single main street, dogleg railway line and strung-out fibro cottages that you pass on the Melbourne-Queensland run, where you think “But what on earth do people DO here?”

This book falls well within the Australian rural gothic genre- think Chris Womersley’s Bereft, Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender, Gregory Day’s The Patron Saint of Eels, Elizabeth Jolley’s The Well, Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones  and Rosalie Ham’s The Dressmaker.  It has often been pointed out that the late 19th century literature that so much fed into our image of ourselves as Australians – the Henry Lawsons and Banjo Patersons- was often grounded in a rural setting, despite the fact that Australians then were heavily urbanized.  It’s still true- overwhelmingly Australians live in urban areas, and yet much of our literature is based on small-town life that somehow we feel as if we know, even if it’s just from the window of a car, driving through.

The sense of place and the slow, almost aimless pace of life in a small country town are captured well in this book.  It is in three parts, and it tells the story of Grey and his sister Irene who grow up in Mary Smokes with a shiftless and pathetic father after their mother dies in childbirth.  They are poor, limited, and largely defeated right from the start.  Their mother is a gaping absence in all their lives, and Grey and Irene’s brother/sister relationship develops over time from resentment, solicitude, dependence to eventually something that verges on the edge of  an unhealthy physicality.  The Mary Smokes Boys are the group of marginal, bored, similarly unmotivated boys who grow up in Mary Smokes, who drink too much and dabble in dodgy petty crime and work in dead-end and casual agricultural labouring jobs.  As might be expected in a Queensland town, there’s an aboriginal presence  with wary and unarticulate relationships between white and ‘half-caste’ boys who are connected by the intimacy of time and shared childhood experience.

The tone of the book is laconic- so much so that when big plot shifts occur, they are told in that same, slow, understated narrative voice.  Although events were foreshadowed for some time, as a reader I found myself having to re-read to make sure that something so big had actually happened. It was a pity, too, that big events were often marred by rather clichéd writing, right at the climax, with tears ‘burst[ing] from his eyes’, knives being driven into hearts, and clunky dialogue.

The real strength of the writing comes in the descriptions of landscape, weather and the slow pace of country life. For instance, there’s a description of an all-night shift in a country petrol station that unspools slowly, dreamlike, as travelers emerge out of the darkness of the highway and are swallowed up by it again.  As you read it, you know that at times you’ve been one of the customers passing through the fibro petrol station with its dried-out food and dog-eared magazines that Holland has described so well.

I read this book on my e-reader. It was reasonably priced for an e-book ($9.95), which is about the price that I think an ebook should be, instead of $20.00 which is the price they are asking for some other e-books.  However, I’m still not sure that I don’t read differently, and with less satisfaction, on the e-reader.  I wonder if somehow my sense of the pacing of a book is influenced by one page looking very much like the one that preceded it. I sense a lack of progress through the book, and I think that it’s because you can’t see the pages that you’ve read becoming thicker on the left hand side as you progress through the book.  It’s possible that my judgments about books read in this mode are negatively skewed as a result.

My rating: 7.5/10

Reason read: Australian Literature online bookgroup (even though I finished it long after everyone else)

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