Dilem­mas in quest for safety

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Louise Swinn

At the heart of both of th­ese nov­els is deep con­cern for how the most vul­ner­a­ble mem­bers of so­ci­ety are treated. In Prom­ise by Sarah Arm­strong, it is un­pro­tected chil­dren who are the fo­cus; in The Road to Win­ter by Mark Smith, it is asy­lum-seek­ers and, in a bar­baric world, girls.

The Road to Win­ter is a post-apoc­a­lyp­tic novel, set af­ter a virus has wiped out most of the pop­u­la­tion. Finn, al­most 16, is alone with his dog, Rowdy. For two win­ters there’s been no sign of any­one in Finn’s coastal town, An­gowrie (not un­like An­gle­sea in Vic­to­ria), apart from his one ac­quain­tance, Ray, an old guy with whom he reg­u­larly swaps food. As well as gen­eral is­sues of sur­vival, Finn needs to look out for danger­ous out­law gang the Wilders, whose leader, Ramage, is a vi­o­lent and malev­o­lent man. If they find him, they will cer­tainly pil­fer his sup­plies, and prob­a­bly cap­ture or harm him.

Out of nowhere comes 19-year-old Rose, in trou­ble and on the run from Ramage. Rose is a si­ley, an asy­lum-seeker who, in a harsh in­dict­ment of Aus­tralia’s present sit­u­a­tion, has been sold off at a pub­lic slave auc­tion. Now with Rose, who is be­ing hunted, Finn’s safety is in jeop­ardy if she stays, but she is com­pany, and it’s been too long.

Finn makes for an ideal pro­tag­o­nist be­cause he al­ways means to do the right thing; de­spite the hor­rors he has wit­nessed, he has no evil in him. All the char­ac­ters are nicely de­vel­oped but he car­ries the book.

The bad is not all in the past for th­ese kids and they live ev­ery mo­ment on edge, un­able to re­lax. In con­stant dan­ger, they have to make ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult de­ci­sions — more in one day than many of us will make in a life­time.

The teenagers need to fill each other in on their his­to­ries but it can be jar­ring when back­ground is given through di­a­logue. Smith mostly writes with a light touch, but oc­ca­sion­ally re­sorts to the the­atri­cal. In one es­cape scene, a teenager rides a horse with mul­ti­ple pas­sen­gers through rough ter­rain at speed while flee­ing, stretch­ing cred­i­bil­ity too far as she reaches around and pulls Finn, who’s slipped, back on.

Deal­ing with some hefty is­sues in­clud­ing rape, preg­nancy and child­birth, The Road to Win­ter strad­dles the young-adult and adult mar­kets; it’s writ­ten very much in the tra­di­tion of John Mars­den’s To­mor­row se­ries, with­out break­ing too much new ground. It fits neatly into a genre that has a large mar­ket and will be en­joyed by teenagers who have not tired of the post-apoc­a­lyp­tic.

This is Smith’s first novel but he has pub­lished many short sto­ries and won prizes. He has signed a three-book deal with Text, which is of­fer­ing a money-back guar­an­tee on each copy, so it’s no sur­prise when, at the end of the book, one of the char­ac­ters vows to avenge a sib­ling’s death. Will she suc­ceed? I’d wager a fiver.

It is im­pos­si­ble to read Arm­strong’s Prom­ise with­out imag­in­ing what you would do if placed in the po­si­tion of her pro­tag­o­nist Anna. A rough fam­ily moves in next door and she is caught up in their lives when it be­comes clear five-yearold girl Char­lie is in se­ri­ous dan­ger. Anna re­ports the sit­u­a­tion to the po­lice and Fam­ily and Com­mu­nity Ser­vices, but the lat­ter is over­whelmed by kids in more dire need, and when the po­lice ar­rive it makes mat­ters worse. Re­turn­ing Char­lie, cow­er­ing in Anna’s back­yard, to her step­fa­ther would mean cer­tain abuse, so Anna puts the child in her car and drives away.

Tellingly, when her lawyer boyfriend urges her to turn back be­cause what she is do­ing is ab­duc­tion, and she asks if he can guar­an­tee that they will be able to get Char­lie into care, Dave, a guy we’ve come to trust, pauses. “No, of course I can’t,” he says on the phone. “But I guar­an­tee you’ll end up charged with a se­ri­ous crime un- less you stop right now.” Th­ese, then, are Anna’s choices, and she un­der­stands the con­se­quences.

Prom­ise gets off to a slow start, but the ten­sion mounts as the nar­ra­tive re­counts ev­ery move they make. The cu­mu­la­tive ef­fect builds up the im­pres­sion that far from be­ing a crazy de­ci­sion, the choice Anna makes is the only cred­i­ble one open to a hu­mane mem­ber of so­ci­ety. To Arm­strong’s enor­mous credit, we come to care a great deal about what hap­pens to Char­lie and Anna. The drama at no point be­comes melo­dra­matic, which is quite a feat given a plot that in­volves kid­nap­ping, the po­lice, hid­ing out and lawyers.

From sen­si­ble, con­ven­tional graphic de­signer to an out­law on the lam, Anna’s life un­der­goes a com­plete trans­for­ma­tion in just a few hours. She turns to the only per­son she can think of who might be sim­patico: her boyfriend of 17 years ago, Pat.

At first, Pat doesn’t seem like the easy­go­ing guy she re­mem­bers, and for a mo­ment we ques­tion whether we can trust Anna’s per­spec­tive, but his life has changed. Things are com­pli­cated now for Pat.

Things are com­pli­cated for Anna, too. She has taken Char­lie to keep her safe, but the lit­tle girl wants to be with her mum, de­spite the abuse. Some of the peo­ple who could help Anna are in­stead judg­men­tal: Should she have taken Char­lie from her mother? And shouldn’t she have taken Char­lie’s mother, too, given that she is liv­ing with a vi­o­lent man?

The piv­otal ques­tion for Anna, who lost her own mother when she was eight, con­cerns whether she did the right thing or whether Char­lie should be with her mother re­gard­less. In loco par­en­tis for the first time, Anna asks her­self what her own mother would have done.

The char­ac­ters bloom into life with the ex­cep­tion of Char­lie, who is un­der­stand­ably joy­less. It is hard to get much of a sense of how she af­fects a room, and what she is like to be around. Even when present, she often seems ab­sent.

The book re­flects cur­rent af­fairs and is in­dica­tive of how peo­ple are af­fected by the trauma of those close by. In an in­ter­est­ing par­al­lel with The Road to Win­ter, in Prom­ise it is back­packer Sabine who feels un­wel­come in Aus­tralia. Now that her visa has run out she is an il­le­gal im­mi­grant gen­uinely wor­ried that the au­thor­i­ties might place her in de­ten­tion.

Anna is prob­a­bly not in a po­si­tion to have kids her­self now, though she might have had one once. She con­tem­plates this while also deal­ing with the disappointment of her ex-cop dad who, un­der­stand­ably, wor­ries. Noth­ing is with­out com­pli­ca­tion, and the messy lay­ers of it, rather than be­ing over the top, add to the story’s au­then­tic­ity, as does the con­clu­sion.

Anna could have ig­nored the bangs and cries in the night, and the girl in her yard, wet and scared. Ac­cept­ing col­lec­tive re­spon­si­bil­ity is one thing, but to in­de­pen­dently take on some­one else’s child in or­der to pre­vent them from fur­ther harm is a big ask.

As the news tells us re­peat­edly, call­ing the au­thor­i­ties is not enough to en­sure the safety of a child. It should be, but it isn’t. With fierce in­tegrity, Arm­strong has writ­ten a con­tem­po­rary story that ab­so­lutely needs telling. is a writer and pub­lisher.

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