Novel paths to self-help

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Raise your hand if you would rather read a novel than a self-help book. OK, hands down. Next ques­tion: can nov­els also show us how to par­ent, how to look af­ter our par­ents, when to love and when to leave? Can they show us how to live a richer life?

Which is a finer ex­am­ple of child rear­ing: Rais­ing Girls or Lit­tle Women? Will read­ing The Se­cret His­tory teach you more about choos­ing friends than How to Win Friends and In­flu­ence Peo­ple? Can nov­el­ists tell sto­ries that make us recog­nise some­thing in­trin­sic about be­ing hu­man? Can they re­flect our own choices back to us, mag­nify them even, and make us live a more closely ex­am­ined life?

As a self-help book, Anna Spargo-Ryan’s sec­ond novel The Gulf might be ti­tled How to Keep Your Mum Away From Toxic Men.

It’s the story of a 16-year-old, Skye. Skye’s mum Linda meets her new boyfriend, Ja­son, at the su­per­mar­ket.

Told in the first-per­son, The Gulf opens with Skye re­flect­ing that Linda has mor­phed into many ver­sions of her­self for the many boyfriends she has had: “She’d been a cow­boy boot wearer and a biker chick and a Lib­eral voter. She’d been a per­son who went to raves in the bush and a per­son who watched hor­ror movies and a per­son who had to sleep with the fan on.”

But then Ja­son ap­pears on the scene. He’s big, tat­tooed and bald­ing, and he leaves plas­tic tubs around their flat that Skye isn’t al­lowed to open. Spargo-Ryan keeps us firmly within Skye’s perspective, and Skye senses but doesn’t know what dan­ger Ja­son brings.

Part of the rev­e­la­tion of many com­ing-ofage nov­els is the idea that our par­ents are not as per­fect as we imag­ined them to be. Spar­goRyan takes this a step fur­ther be­cause Linda’s de­sire to be loved is down­right dan­ger­ous, and her will­ing­ness to fol­low the man in her life means she drags her chil­dren along for the ride.

The bril­liance in this novel is in the hu­mour and be­liev­abil­ity of these characters com­bined with the ten­sion as their lives un­ravel. Skye does her best to look af­ter her lit­tle brother Ben (who is 10) when she re­alises no one else is, but she also spends a colour­ful chunk of her vo­cab­u­lary crit­i­cis­ing her mum and Ja­son. When her mum de­cides they will va­cate their flat in Ade­laide over­look­ing the West­field park­ing lot and move to Port Flin­ders to be with Ja­son, Skye ques­tions the qual­ity of Ja­son’s place.

“It’s a fine place,” he said. “Just not full of kid crap.” “Kid crap? Like, ac­tual chil­dren?” “Like shitty toy cars” I crossed my arms. “Just shitty ac­tual adults.” Ja­son raised his flat hand. “You want to say that again.”

Spargo-Ryan does the short­hand of fam­ily dia­logue with skill: the “dun­nos” of the mono­syl­labic Ja­son, the en­cy­clo­pe­dic chat­ter of Ben about an­i­mals, the snark be­tween Skye and her mum. The threat of Ja­son is best por­trayed by his dog, Mur­ray, who is chained, blind and crip­pled, in his back yard. Mur­ray’s his­tory is hinted at but never fully known and Mur­ray’s own ag­gres­sion stems from the mis­treat­ment he has borne. It’s not al­ways easy to read The Gulf but it is im­pos­si­ble to turn away.

Eliza Henry-Jones’s Ache is also a sec­ond novel with a fe­male pro­tag­o­nist, an un­con­ven­tional mother and a child who echoes a trou­bled home life, but this time the trou­ble comes from the out­side. As a self-help book, Ache would be ti­tled How to Keep a Bush­fire from Tear­ing Your Fam­ily Apart. It is set in the af­ter­math of a bush­fire in Vic­to­ria that has dev­as­tated An­nie’s home town, killing her grand­mother and trau­ma­tis­ing her young daugh­ter.

That Henry-Jones is not yet 30 is ex­tra­or­di­nary in that she has al­ready found a dis­tinct voice and set­ting for her nov­els.

As An­nie tries to help her strug­gling mum — an age­ing hip­pie who “has stayed a teenager long into her adult years”, and sort out her own con­flict­ing emo­tions about who she loves and where she ought to be — Henry-Jones brings us into the sleepy, sappy world of half-burnt trees, cup­cakes, gum­boots and bee hives.

Many of the peo­ple on the moun­tain, An­nie in­cluded, haven’t come to terms with what hap­pened dur­ing the bush­fire and the rifts that opened in the com­mu­nity af­ter­wards. An­nie’s ex-boyfriend Alex is blamed and the flashes of vi­o­lence are un­set­tling, per­haps be­cause we don’t ever see the source; no one is ever held re­spon­si­ble.

Mean­while the writ­ing slips into fa­mil­iar pat­terns of pret­ti­ness that lull the reader: “Her own child­hood mem­o­ries are caramel coloured. Eu­ca­lypt. Honey. Paint. Ponies. Alex. They are wide pad­docks and the feel­ing of eggs and feath­ers. The taste of home­grown veg­eta­bles and the sound of women’s voices.”

So it seems out of place when name­less peo­ple in the street of the small moun­tain vil­lage ac­cost An­nie, when Alex’s throat gets burned with a cir­cle of pipe, held first to an open flame.

Eliza Henry-Jones with her dog at home in the Dan­de­nongs

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