2009, 296 p.
For some reason, this book seemed to take me an age to read. Perhaps it was the structure of alternating chapters as it swung between two related men, forty years apart, which made it rather too easy to put down. Once put down, its dual-narrative structure also required more back-tracking than usual to pick up again.
Frank has left Canberra after breaking up with his girlfriend, moving to a shack amongst the canefields on the north-east coast that was originally owned by his grandparents. He’s a damaged, angry, fragile man, estranged from his widowed father, with few apparent friends. It takes him some time to tentatively reach out to his neighbours and their daughter, and settle uneasily into sporadic work.
Forty years earlier, Leon was growing up in Sydney, the son of a pastrycook and Jewish refugees. His father had felt compelled through gratitude to his new country to join the Korean War, but came back home a shattered shell of a man. Leon, in turn was conscripted to Vietnam, and when he returned from Vietnam, he too was a damaged, angry, fragile man, traumatized by his war experiences and unable to settle.
These men feel much, but do not – can not- verbalize it. They are largely unreachable, encasing themselves in a masculine armour and a restlessness that deflects any attempts by others to reach the softer part of them. Women here are either idolized or uglified. There’s a hum of violence that runs underneath their stories.
The real strength of this book is its depiction of place, which is so crystal-sharp that you can picture it in your mind. Flipping through the book, I find myself surprised that there is as much dialogue as there is, because to me it seemed a very intense and silent book.
But I don’t think that I actually engaged in it at an emotional level although perhaps the writer has intended that, by mirroring the brusqueness of the male characters. With my disjointed reading of the book, it took me an inordinate time to work out the relationship between the two men, and it became an intellectual rather than emotional challenge to see how the two stories intersected. I’m not sure that I actually liked the book. I admire the writing; I doff my hat to such a strong debut performance; and her rendering of setting is very accomplished, but it just left me a bit like her characters- cold.
I’ve posted this review at the Australian Women Writers Challenge.