The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Joy Lawn

BRO­KEN char­ac­ters lit­ter young adult fic­tion. Their in­se­cu­rity and angst fuse with life’s curve balls. Char­ac­ters can die or sur­vive. Plots can fea­ture com­bat or con­fronta­tion. The search for iden­tity and di­rec­tion can be­come a sym­bolic or lit­eral wartorn rites of pas­sage. Bro­ken is also the ti­tle of a novel cum graphic novel by New Zealand au­thor El­iz­a­beth Pul­ford, il­lus­trated by An­gus Gomes (Walker Books Aus­tralia, 256pp, $19.95), which deals in bro­ken char­ac­ters.

Bro­ken is one of the most ex­cit­ing YA nov­els pub­lished in Aus­tralia this year, not least be­cause of its bril­liant struc­ture. It is told as a mise en abyme — a story within a story. The in­ner story is set inside a comic-book world, par­al­lel­ing the generic struc­ture of graphic nov­els where pan­els are inside frames.

The graphic novel is framed by the outer story of Zara, who is in a coma fol­low­ing a mo­tor­bike ac­ci­dent in which her brother, Jem, was killed. She doesn’t know he is dead. In her co­matose state, Zara is search­ing for Jem in the comic­book world of his favourite su­per­hero, Hood­man. She also en­coun­ters the an­gel hero, Dark Ea­gle, and evil Morven, who may em­body some­one in her past.

Zara is an artist whose draw­ings cre­ate a metafic­tive el­e­ment in the text. The con­struc­tion and il­lu­sion of fic­tion is de­lib­er­ately ex­posed here. She de­scribes how she ‘‘ slipped down be­tween the black and white lines of one of my sketches . . . I’m a small in­signif­i­cant mark on the page’’.

Once inside the comic-book world, Zara bends and amends its struc­ture. She draws her­self inside places she wants to be and sketches and erases door­knobs and win­dows to seek and es­cape. In fur­ther homage to con­ven­tions of so­phis­ti­cated book il­lus­tra­tion and the pan­els and frames of graphic nov­els, Zara sinks into ‘‘ white space’’ and draws a room with a bor­der, a ‘‘ bold black line around the edge to con­tain the room’’. The rooms in this place be­come metaphors, as do cup­boards and doors, par­tic­u­larly a sig­nif­i­cant blue door. Zara’s dis­turb­ing back­story merges flaw­lessly with the main nar­ra­tive through these sym­bols.

Other im­ages of a shell path­way, wa­ter and glass, and dark and light also help to un­veil Zara’s se­cret dur­ing her sur­real quest.

The ti­tle char­ac­ter in John Boyne’s The Ter­ri­ble Thing that Hap­pened to Barn­aby Brocket (Dou­ble­day, 288pp, $19.95) isn’t lit­er­ally bro­ken, al­though he was born un­able to stay on the ground and floats away if not tied down. This causes de­nial and trauma in his par­ents, whose only de­sire is to be nor­mal.

Barn­aby’s sur­name even sug­gests ‘‘ bro­ken’’ and ‘‘ rocket’’, words rel­e­vant to his life. As fore­shad­owed by the ti­tle, a ter­ri­ble thing does hap­pen to Barn­aby; par­tic­u­larly dread­ful be­cause of the be­trayal sur­round­ing it.

This event, how­ever, causes Barn­aby to leave his home in Sydney and em­bark on a jour­ney across the world. He meets char­ac­ters in South Amer­ica and other coun­tries and cities who are also dis­placed and re­jected; some for rea­sons younger read­ers may not notice be­cause the au­thor has hid­den them in the sub­text for older read­ers.

Boyne’s themes of parental ex­pec­ta­tions and dif­fer­ence cre­ate poignancy even though most char­ac­ters even­tu­ally find some res­o­lu­tion and peace. He de­lib­er­ately refers to some fa­mous lit­er­a­ture, in­clud­ing The Three Mus­ke­teers, Jane Eyre and David Cop­per­field, and ac­knowl­edges Roald Dahl in his car­i­ca­tured and mis­un­der­stood char­ac­ters, as well as in the fan­tas­ti­cal ad­ven­ture and hu­mour.

This book fol­lows Boyne’s ex­cel­lent fa­ble Noah Bar­ley­wa­ter Runs Away and, of course, The Boy in the Striped Py­ja­mas. The Ir­ish au­thor’s ap­pear­ances in the next few weeks at the Mel­bourne and Bris­bane writ­ers fes­ti­vals are sure to gen­er­ate enor­mous in­ter­est and may even re­veal an an­swer to a teaser in Barn­aby Brocket about a favourite au­thor from By­ron Bay.

An­other re­source­ful, bright boy who must deal with un­fore­seen sit­u­a­tions alone is Ab­bas Kaze­rooni. His predica­ment is set firmly in the real world, how­ever, and is based on the true story of the au­thor as a nine-year-old boy es­cap­ing from the Iraq in­va­sion of Iran. His au­to­bi­og­ra­phy be­gins in On Two Feet and Wings (Allen & Un­win, 264pp, $15.99).

Ab­bas’s par­ents are Mus­lims who were for­merly wealthy and pow­er­ful. They can­not save him from be­ing re­cruited for war and de­vise a plan to send him, with his mother, to Tur­key. His fa­ther has care­fully tu­tored him about Is­tan­bul and treats him like a man, which Ab­bas val­ues.

At the air­port, Ab­bas’s mother is pre­vented from leav­ing so he must travel alone with the aim of se­cur­ing a British visa. It may seem in­con­ceiv­able to many Aus­tralian read­ers that such a young boy is put in this sit­u­a­tion and, fur­ther­more, has to cope with his fa­ther’s treach­er­ous friend who meets him at the air­port but then dis­cards him. How will Ab­bas find a cheap, safe ho­tel by him­self? How will he know who to trust? With only enough money for one small meal a day, Ab­bas uses his en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills to work as a waiter and then set up his own shoe-clean­ing busi­ness. Ab­bas is cheated and treated harshly at times but his be­lief in peo­ple’s kind­ness and truth as the way to free­dom is up­lift­ing.

Like Ab­bas and Barn­aby, Mor­ris Gleitz­man’s Felix is a brave boy who en­dures cru­elty, and his case is the most chill­ing of all. Felix is known to many read­ers from Gleitz­man’s ac­claimed se­ries about the Holo­caust: Once (2005), Then (2007) and Now (2010). The just-pub­lished fourth in­stal­ment is Af­ter (Vik­ing, 224pp, $19.99).

Felix is a Jewish boy who, in the open­ing book, was left by his book­seller par­ents for his own safety and wit­nessed atroc­i­ties that his op­ti­mism and in­gen­u­ous­ness pre­vented him from recog­nis­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, Gleitz­man uses a naive voice style sim­i­lar to Felix’s for many of his char­ac­ters throughout his body of work. It is suc­cess­ful in this se­ries be­cause its sim­ple style is a clear-eyed coun­ter­point to the hor­ror of the Holo­caust. Af­ter takes the reader back to Felix’s tri­als dur­ing the war, at first to the un­der­ground hole that had been his home for the past two years. When Felix leaves it to res­cue his bene­fac­tor, Gabriek, what dan­gers will threaten him?

Gleitz­man’s struc­ture is one of his fine ac­com­plish­ments in this se­ries. Each book be­gins and ends with the ti­tle word; in this novel it is the word ‘‘ Af­ter’’, and each chap­ter also be­gins with this word. It is an in­ge­nious and pow­er­ful lit­er­ary de­vice. Other writ­ers (and re­view­ers) can try to repli­cate it at their peril.

The ef­fect of war and trauma on chil­dren and young peo­ple can be hor­rific and should not be un­der­es­ti­mated. Sto­ries about these is­sues can pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties for char­ac­ters such as Felix, Ab­bas, Barn­aby and Zara to play out their roles and show read­ers how good­ness can be kept alive to help mend bro­ken places and peo­ple. Dam­aged young fig­ures move for­ward with hope in books of this cal­i­bre and, ide­ally, will not re­main bro­ken.

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