Frac­tured fam­i­lies haunted by young ghosts

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

WHEN a child goes miss­ing, the loss res­onates for months, years even. For the fam­i­lies in­volved, the re­ver­ber­a­tions last a life­time.

Two new Aus­tralian nov­els probe the fault lines that open up in fam­i­lies when faced with such a loss, each tak­ing a dif­fer­ent ap­proach, yet each, in its own way, of­fer­ing a per­sua­sive in­sight into the way fam­i­lies co­here when faced with tragedy, and the ways they fall apart.

What dis­tin­guishes The Lost Child, the de­but novel from Mel­bourne-based writer Suzanne McCourt, is the metic­u­lous and vivid child’s-eye view through which one fam­ily’s break­down is ren­dered.

Sylvie Mee­han is five when we first meet her. She lives in a small fish­ing vil­lage near the Coorong, shar­ing a bed with her mother. Her fa­ther sleeps in the spare room and her brother, Dunc, a few years older than Sylvie, has a room to him­self in which he hoards comic books and birds’ eggs.

Sylvie’s fa­ther, Mick, works on the fish­ing boats. Once he was a promis­ing singer, a horse trainer, but be­ing posted to Dar­win dur­ing the war changed him. Now he sings only when he’s drunk, and the whip that tamed horses he now uses to dis­ci­pline his chil­dren.

Nella, Sylvie’s mother, veers be­tween truck­ling to her hus­band and de­fy­ing him, chart­ing a care­ful course around his moods to pro­tect her­self and her chil­dren. When she fi­nally throws Mick out — his af­fair with “the Trol­lop” no longer bear­able — she is both em­bold­ened and dev­as­tated.

But it’s when Dunc goes miss­ing — re­fus­ing to be­lieve the worst of his fa­ther — that the fam­ily reaches its nadir.

There’s a watch­ful in­ten­sity to McCourt’s writ­ing, a re­mark­able abil­ity to dis­cover within the most con­crete de­tails a rich and raw emo­tion: “I hide in my read­ing and writ­ing and sums ... I hide in the still­ness that flat­tens out the sea be­fore the storm comes in.”

While we are im­mersed in the world view of the young Sylvie, and in the im­me­di­ate aftermath of Dunc’s dis­ap­pear­ance, The Lost Child is an as­sured work. But as the teenage Sylvie strug­gles to ne­go­ti­ate her un­easy re­la­tion­ship

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