Grief, pain and or­deals by fire

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Miss­ing moth­ers, misog­yny and grief fea­ture in these com­pelling sto­ries for young adults. Pub­li­ca­tion of a new novel by Claire Zorn is an Aus­tralian YA lit­er­ary event. In Zorn’s lat­est book, One Would Think the Deep (UQP, 304pp, $19.99), Sam is a skate­boarder about to start Year 12 when his mother dies sud­denly. His aunt moves him abruptly from his home in Syd­ney’s in­ner west to the beaches near Wol­lon­gong, an area the au­thor knows well.

Sam’s two cousins are surfers. Minty is ex­pected to win a ma­jor com­pe­ti­tion and shows Sam how to surf. Sam had planned to study me­te­o­rol­ogy, but drops out of school and hones his skills find­ing the best waves.

Zorn’s de­scrip­tions of surf­ing and the sea are sen­sory, al­le­gor­i­cal and charged with adrenalin. Her ti­tle and sym­bol­ism come from a quote in the bib­li­cal Book of Job (known for its suf­fer­ing pro­tag­o­nist) about the Leviathan mon­ster that leaves a “glis­ten­ing wake; one would think the deep had white hair”. She draws fur­ther par­al­lels be­tween Sam, surf­ing and suf­fer­ing.

The au­thor also of­fers an in­sight into the male-dom­i­nated, misog­y­nist surf­ing cul­ture, where tal­ented Abo­rig­i­nal Ruby is cold-shoul­dered and girls are treated like live­stock: rated and told what the guys would like to do to them when they walk past.

Sam no­tices a girl, Gretchen, who swims laps wear­ing Speedos and runs ev­ery day. Gretchen is beau­ti­fully formed: un­der­stated and “classy” rather than hot, and with darker hair than the blonde, bikinied beach girls. They meet through mu­tual friend Jono, who is neu­tral like Switzer­land. Jono treats peo­ple fairly and his large Catholic fam­ily makes Sam feel com­fort­able.

Sam is at­tracted to Gretchen but loses his usual cool and has trou­ble speak­ing to her, even when he in­vites her to a party. Their nascent friend­ship is de­scribed through shared mu­sic, par­tic­u­larly the songs of Jeff Buck­ley, whose Loser, So Real and Grace are sewn into the story. One Would Think the Deep is set in 1997, when kids still lis­tened to their favourite songs on the ra­dio and when Buck­ley dis­ap­peared into the Mis­sis­sippi River.

Mu­sic helps but doesn’t heal Sam’s resid­ual rage. He seeks con­fronta­tion and feels that his fam­ily is dis­ap­pear­ing. His grief causes snapshots of de­bil­i­tat­ing im­ages to wind through his brain like a warp­ing film reel.

The 13-year-old pro­tag­o­nist, Sum­mer, in Emily Gale’s novel The Other Side of Sum­mer (Ran­dom House, 336pp, $16.99), also faces raw grief. Her older brother Floyd was killed at Water­loo sta­tion in the 2005 Lon­don ter­ror­ist bomb­ings. The Ibanez Art­wood gui­tar that never left his side is re­cov­ered and re­turned to Sum­mer and she plays the songs he left her: Water­loo Sun­set, I Will Follow You into the Dark and Wish You Were Here. But once she plays each song, the sheet mu­sic in­ex­pli­ca­bly dis­ap­pears.

The gui­tar be­comes a leit­mo­tif con­nect­ing past, present and fu­ture as Sum­mer, her fa­ther and sis­ter Wren move from Eng­land to Aus­tralia. Their in­con­solable mother stays be­hind. Sum­mer meets Gabe (Gabriel) a dread­locked, brown-skinned, elu­sive boy at the creek. He has mys­te­ri­ous qual­i­ties and seems to ap­pear and dis­ap­pear. Time be­comes fluid.

The nat­u­ral Aus­tralian bush set­ting al­lows the au­thor’s imagery to shine, par­tic­u­larly in con­trast to the icy cold of Lon­don. Gale, a for­mer Mel­bourne book­seller, is also skilled at evok­ing char­ac­ter and emo­tion in orig­i­nal, thought­ful im­ages: “The night sleep cov­ered ev­ery part of me like an over­sized blan­ket. It was strange be­cause usu­ally sleep didn’t fit me prop­erly and my feet would poke out the end and get cold.”

Sum­mer changes af­ter Floyd’s death. Her lone­li­ness and anger cause her to be­have nas­tily to­wards her young neigh­bour So­phie, but Floyd’s voice in her head urges her to be gen­tle. She re­mem­bers her Gran’s words about seeds in the dark grow­ing once they find light. As the ti­tle hints, Sum­mer learns that she, and ev­ery­one, has an­other side.

Books are an im­por­tant part of Sum­mer’s life. Her loyal best friend in Lon­don sends her a par­cel of books, which in­cludes Re­becca Stead’s thought-pro­vok­ing Good­bye Stranger (which I re­viewed in this col­umn in Jan­uary). Sum­mer is for­tu­nate also to be newly be­friended by Becky Wong and her group. Becky is search­ing for the magic in­side books and in­vites Sum­mer to a book sign­ing by a real-life Aus­tralian au­thor, Jus­tine Lar­balestier. This is a care­fully writ­ten, ground­break­ing scene, the first of its kind I can re­call read­ing in Aus­tralian YA lit­er­a­ture.

A kind new friend and more miss­ing moth­ers also ap­pear in Mel­bourne-based Nova Weet­man’s The Se­crets We Keep (UQP, 232pp, $16.95), which, like The Other Side of Sum­mer, is aimed at younger YA read­ers. Clem has to move to a flat in a new sub­urb and be­gin an­other school midterm be­cause her old white weather- board home has burned down. There are bat­tles with the in­sur­ance com­pany, so money is short. Clem’s clothes are sag­ging and dif­fer­ent from those of the girls at her new school, and she has to wear sticky-taped-to­gether Con­verse sneak­ers for the run­ning she ex­cels at. She is griev­ing the loss of her mother and feels dis­placed and angry.

Clem and best friend Bridge from her old school were too lost in their con­ver­sa­tions and sport to con­sider how new students felt. For­tu­nately for Clem, Ellie is friendly, par­tic­u­larly once she hears that Clem’s mother has died. Ellie’s mother has breast can­cer and the two girls be­come closer, al­though Clem is burn­ing with a se­cret.

Clem’s mother did spe­cial things with her such as swim­ming in the win­ter sea and hav­ing choco­late cake for break­fast. She was easy­go­ing and the envy of Clem’s friends un­til “she went black … Slept a lot. And was re­ally sad. And then she burnt down our house.”

Fire is used with ma­li­cious in­tent to burn more than a house in Amer­i­can writer Julie Berry’s sec­ond YA novel, The Pas­sion of Dolssa (HarperCollins, 335pp, $29.99), set be­tween 1241 and 1290 dur­ing the time of the me­dieval In­qui­si­tion in France. Dolssa is a pi­ous young no­ble­woman who calls Christ her beloved. Her de­sire is “to shine his love into the world”, caus­ing her to be ac­cused of heresy. Her mother is burned on a pyre, but an un­seen man un­binds Dolssa so that she can es­cape.

The tale is struc­tured as a so­phis­ti­cated mise en abyme where the sto­ries of Dolssa and earthy match­maker and tav­ern keeper Botille are told within the frame­work of Friar Ar­naut D’Av­in­honet’s later his­tor­i­cal ac­count. Dolssa and Botille are the main nar­ra­tors and pro­tag­o­nists, al­though oth­ers, par­tic­u­larly fa­nat­i­cal friar Lu­cien de Saint-Honore, record events and give tes­ti­monies.

The young women’s lives in­ter­sect when Botille finds Dolssa dy­ing near the river. With help from Symo, “the surli­est, most unco-op­er­a­tive pig I’d met in a long his­tory of meet­ing pigs”, Botille gets Dolssa to tem­po­rary safety in the tav­ern where she and her sooth­sayer and beau­ti­ful sis­ters care for her. Once healed, Dolssa cre­ates mir­a­cles by sav­ing three of the vil­lagers’ lives but, as the au­thor ex­plains, the best way to “squash an in­con­ve­nient idea is to … qui­etly burn its records, dis­credit and sup­press its voices, and deny their ex­is­tence”.

A group of young peo­ple is also hid­den and sub­ju­gated in Mel­bourne-based Em Bai­ley’s psy­cho­log­i­cal thriller The Spe­cial Ones (Hardie Grant Eg­mont, 319pp, $19.99). They are locked away on a farm and moulded into a cult where each one must look like their coun­ter­part in an old-fash­ioned pho­to­graph. “The Felicity” is a young blonde with braids, “the Harry” is bearded and broad-shoul­dered, “the Lu­cille” is a de­fi­ant, curvy brunette and “the Es­ther” is a tall, thin enigma who isn’t al­lowed to touch the other Spe­cial Ones. Peo­ple are “re­newed” (ex­changed) at times, and the lat­est Lu­cille has been miss­ing for sev­eral weeks, with Harry search­ing for her re­place­ment. Her fol­low­ers in the on­line even­ing chat rooms, where the four Spe­cial Ones guide out­side devo­tees, are be­com­ing im­pa­tient. The “col­lec­tion” or kid­nap­ping of the new Lu­cille looms.

Bai­ley has cre­ated a con­vinc­ing world where the Spe­cial Ones are con­trolled by “him”, a man they have never seen but who has planted mi­cro­phones and cam­eras in the farm­house and who leaves writ­ten or­ders for them to obey. They each have a “remembering book” that out­lines their roles, rit­u­als and Amish-like du­ties such as bread-mak­ing, pre­serv­ing fruit and sewing their cum­ber­some cos­tumes. They face reg­u­lar “ver­i­fi­ca­tions” where they must stand in front of their pho­to­graph, test­ing that they still re­sem­ble the orig­i­nal fig­ure. There are many rules such as not men­tion­ing their for­mer lives or climb­ing trees, and the “pun­ish­ment wheel” metes out self-in­flicted sen­tences of fast­ing, cut­ting and whip­ping.

Dan­ger, me­nace and fear build and Es­ther, who was pre­vi­ously soft and sen­ti­men­tal but is now an obe­di­ent girl of “stone”, starts los­ing her self-con­trol and mutely chal­lenges their lifestyle. As the sin­is­ter “re­newals” es­ca­late, we be­gin to hear “his” chill­ing voice and back­story. An ul­ti­mate reckoning is com­ing.


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