On a quest for their bet­ter selves

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Robert New­ton is a Mel­bourne-based fire­fighter and au­thor. Mr Ro­manov’s Gar­den in the Sky (Pen­guin, 218pp, $17.99) be­gins as a gritty reimag­in­ing of his ex­pe­ri­ence 25 years ago when called to an emer­gency in a Mel­bourne housing com­mis­sion tower. The sight of a small girl in py­ja­mas wait­ing be­side her dru­gover­dosed mother has haunted him since, and is now re-cre­ated in 13-year-old Lexie.

Early in the novel Lexie wit­nesses a dog, owned by a down-at-heel Rus­sian man, be­ing thrown off the tower. New­ton deftly tem­pers this con­fronting scene into pathos and then kind­ness and hu­mour as Lexie en­lists her friend Davey to help old Mr Ro­manov clean his apart­ment and ful­fil his dream of a se­cret rooftop gar­den.

New­ton has a nim­ble style and tone. His pre­vi­ous book, the World War II-set When We Were Two, about a pair of broth­ers who take a long walk along­side men who are head­ing off to en­list, won a Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Award. Both the ear­lier book and his new novel use post­cards as sym­bolic bea­cons. In Mr Ro­manov’s Gar­den, Lexie pins her fa­ther’s post­card of Surfers Par­adise me­ter maids, with their sparkling cow­boy hats, above her bed. Surfers Par­adise be­comes her utopia.

New­ton side­tracks the story of a gar­den into the road trip of Lexie’s dreams. Mr Ro­manov and Davey also have rea­sons to es­cape. But when it comes to Surfers Par­adise, Davey taunts, “You want to be that lit­tle girl in the snow dome? You want to get a bucket and spade and build a few sand­cas­tles with your dead dad and junkie mum? Sorry to burst your bub­ble and all, but Surfers Par­adise is a shit­hole any­way. I looked it up on the in­ter­net.”

Mr Ro­manov’s Gar­den is not only strik­ing for its un­ex­pected tan­gents, lay­ered, sen­sory writ­ing and con­trast­ing im­ages and colours, but also for its ten­der por­trayal of the trans­for­ma­tion of Lexie and her young friends.

Another vul­ner­a­ble fe­male, Angie, is at the cen­tre of Robin Klein’s multi-award-win­ning Came Back to Show You I Could Fly, reis­sued as a Text Clas­sic (229pp, $12.95). Angie also faces a pre­car­i­ous fu­ture.

This novel was ground­break­ing when it was first pub­lished in 1989, and it re­mains fresh and ur­gent. Angie’s prob­lems with drugs, re­la­tion­ships, lack of work and money un­fold in an ac­ces­si­ble way, wit­nessed through the grow­ing in­sight of young, naive Sey­mour, whose un­sta­ble mother has dumped him with a fussy spin­ster ac­quain­tance.

Sey­mour en­coun­ters Angie while he is hid­ing from bul­lies. She is ex­otic, lets Sey­mour choose her ear­rings and takes him on tram rides around a city that she glam­or­ises with­out quite hid­ing its in­salu­bri­ous cor­ners.

Per­haps Klein’s great­est achieve­ment is show­ing Angie through dif­fer­ent char­ac­ters’ eyes and per­spec­tives. With her flam­boy­ant dresses and tat­too of a fly­ing horse on her shoul­der, she is a beau­ti­ful god­dess to Sey­mour, but her fam­ily dis­proves of her re­veal­ing clothes and tawdry ear­rings. Even though we per­ceive her flight­i­ness and the reck­less­ness of her choices, we align our­selves with Sey­mour’s op­ti­mistic, but un­re­al­is­tic, view.

Klein then drags us into Angie’s fam­ily’s pain and de­spair, their “raw and hope­less grief’’. Her nar­ra­tive keeps us won­der­ing if Angie even has a fu­ture. We share Sey­mour’s omi­nous awak­en­ing and fear for Angie as she wastes op­por­tu­ni­ties and sinks lower. He un­der­goes a re­luc­tant rite of pas­sage, fi­nally see­ing the truth in Angie and oth­ers. He re­alises, “There would never be any lit­tle winged horse plung­ing splen­didly from the sky to … carry you away from things not to be borne. That was some­thing you had to learn to do all by your­self.”

Hold­ing up the Universe (Pen­guin, 423pp, $19.99) is the sec­ond novel from Amer­i­can au­thor Jen­nifer Niven. We learn that Libby Strout was “Amer­ica’s fat­test teen”. Grief at her mother’s death, be­ing bul­lied and hav­ing panic at­tacks made her overeat. House­bound for two years, she had to be lifted out by crane. The hate mail be­gan when her plight was pub­li­cised.

The novel is set three years af­ter this. The story is a dual nar­ra­tive shared by Libby, now back at school, and Jack Mas­selin, whose life has touched Libby’s in the past.

Try­ing to pro­tect her, he takes on the chal­lenge of “Fat Girl Rodeo” be­fore some­one else hurts her more. This is a nasty game where a boy jumps on to a girl and hangs on for as long as pos­si­ble, as if she’s a bull. Libby punches him in the mouth.

Jack is “the Guy Girls Want”, “tall, longlimbed, and lanky, with gold-brown skin and this dark hair that ex­plodes in all di­rec­tions”. He grows his afro like a lion’s mane as his “iden­ti­fier”, so he can find him­self.

Jack hasn’t told any­one but he has prosopag­nosia, fa­cial blind­ness, a con­di­tion prob­a­bly shared by Oliver Sacks and Brad Pitt. He can recog­nise only a few peo­ple, and that too with dif­fi­culty, which is a prob­lem when he kisses his girl­friend’s cousin, or when he mis­takes some­one for his lit­tle brother.

His in­ter­ac­tions and re­la­tion­ships are fraught and ex­haust­ing as he searches for peo­ple’s iden­ti­fiers, such as size and skin colour. School is dif­fi­cult for them both. Jack is warned about prej­u­dice he may ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause of his racial back­ground; Libby is brave, with a quick come­back, and re­alises that she should be the “hunter” be­fore the bul­lies de­stroy her.

Jack’s hair is like the sun; Libby smells like sun­shine. Jack comes to see her as a star, chang­ing the world. Even though she longs for help with car­ry­ing her bur­den, Libby loves to dance, and twirls to cel­e­brate: “I am the sky! … I’m ev­ery­where … I am uni­ver­sal.”

A bit like Jack, Finn is “too pretty for his own good” in The Bone Gap (Allen & Un­win, 400pp, $19.99) by Chicago-based Laura Ruby. Finn lives in Bone Gap, Illi­nois, which feels like a mag­i­cal place where “the bones of the world were a lit­tle looser … dou­ble-jointed, twist­ing back on them­selves, leav­ing spa­ces one could slip into and hide”.

His fa­ther has died and his mother drifted away, so el­der brother Sean, who seems like a Wolver­ine or ac­tion fig­ure, works as an emer­gency med­i­cal tech­ni­cian to sup­port them while Finn fin­ishes school.

Finn found in­jured Roza in their barn but, when she is later kid­napped, can’t re­call the man’s face. Finn has a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing dis­tracted and un­able to look peo­ple in the eye. A horse, Night Mare, ap­pears and Finn goes on sur­real evening rides to meet Petey, who hates her real name and cares for the my­opic bees and their queen. She knows that sto­ries meta­mor­phose, but re­fuses to “be care­ful with a boy who comes rid­ing on a mag­i­cal horse”.

The Bone Gap has won pres­ti­gious awards and is an ex­cep­tional work of magic re­al­ism. The writ­ing is in­tri­cate and dense, and leans on folk sto­ries and fairy­tales. Me­taphor­i­cal and phys­i­cal gaps cast a thriller’s shadow. Has Roza slipped into a gap, never to find her way out? We learn Roza’s night­mar­ish story as she is moved be­tween farm­house, cas­tle and fair­ground, with its house of mir­rors re­flect­ing many faces.

Princess Anya is “not the kind who needs res­cu­ing” in Frogkisser! (A&U, 336pp, $19.99), by Syd­ney au­thor Garth Nix, who is ac­claimed in­ter­na­tion­ally for his orig­i­nal and high fan­tasy. Even though Anya is re­source­ful, she would pre­fer to read in the li­brary, like Nix’s sem­i­nal char­ac­ter Li­rael, from the book of the same name.

When Anya’s evil “step­step­fa­ther” (a com­plex re­la­tion­ship) turns her older sis­ter’s suitor into a frog, Anya must find and kiss him. Be­cause true love isn’t part of this kiss, Anya uses the last of the Fairly Re­li­able Trans­mo­gri­fi­ca­tion Re­ver­sal Lip Balm ... but she kisses the wrong frog.

Anya must then go on a quest with an ea­ger young dog called Ar­dent to find the ingredients for more lip balm. She meets a boy thief who has been turned into a newt, the As­so­ci­a­tion of Re­spon­si­ble Rob­bers, Snow White the wiz­ard, more and more frogs and, Nix’s piece de re­sis­tance, Ger­ald the Herald, who speaks in head­lines and is played by mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters in dis­guise.

Princess Anya be­comes not just the Frogkisser but the de­fender of the king­dom. She re­alises that she is in­su­lar and rich. and is chal­lenged to share and be­come a leader who makes a dif­fer­ence.

Nix re­verses and sub­verts the princess fairy story and quest tale, us­ing Terry Pratch­ett-style satire and Monty Python silly-smart hu­mour. The writ­ing is dense, full of ec­cen­tric char­ac­ters and un­ex­pected plot strands. The heroes travel most un­com­fort­ably on a tem­per­a­men­tal fly­ing car­pet with a name and com­mand-word that is al­most im­pos­si­ble to re­mem­ber or say.

Like the text in Anya’s li­brary book, Nix’s words “climb off the page and go wan­der­ing … be­lieved es­caped the cas­tle al­to­gether … or … eaten by one of the dogs”.

He is a lit­er­ary wiz­ard.

Robert New­ton

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