Flee­ing the fear and loathing

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

How young peo­ple re­spond to trauma and be­ing trapped is ex­plored in five new nov­els by Aus­tralian writ­ers. Some char­ac­ters are stuck in time and place, oth­ers are victims of grief and per­se­cu­tion. Vikki Wake­field’s Bal­lad for a Mad Girl (Text, 320pp, $19.99) is a tight thriller, a mur­der bal­lad with su­per­nat­u­ral el­e­ments. Se­nior stu­dents, “Swamp­ies” from Swanston Pub­lic and “Hearts” from Sa­cred Heart Pri­vate School, have a his­tory of crash­ing par­ties and feud­ing.

Ex­treme prankster Grace Fo­ley ex­pects to keep her record on the “pipe chal­lenge”, a tightrope-like cross­ing over the quarry where Han­nah Holt, mur­dered years ago, is ru­moured to be buried. Grace likes be­ing scared. “When I’m stand­ing in the mid­dle of that pipe, know­ing that some­thing ter­ri­ble hap­pened here, know­ing that there’s only air be­tween me and death, I feel it: life is sharper, brighter, more in­tense. It’s a de­li­cious kind of fear.”

But on this night, the head­lights are turned off, ob­jects are thrown at her, fear takes hold and she freezes.

When Grace was young she scooped up the lon­ers at school, form­ing a group of six cho­sen friends. They have tried to sup­port her since her mother died but Grace isn’t lis­ten­ing. She’s al­ways an­gry, turn­ing her grief and fear into bravado. She wor­ries that she may be go­ing slightly mad, is sens­ing cracks be­tween worlds and feels she is car­ry­ing the weight of ter­ri­ble his­to­ries.

Grace draws Han­nah Holt sub­con­sciously in art class. Then she sees her as an ap­pari­tion in her bed­room. It seems that Han­nah wants Grace to dis­cover her fate. As Grace fol­lows Han­nah’s trail, her health de­te­ri­o­rates and she won­ders who she is be­com­ing.

The veil be­tween re­al­ity and un­re­al­ity is rup­tur­ing. Peo­ple be­lieve her when she’s ly­ing, but not when she’s telling the truth. Her friends move on. “[Y]ou’re mak­ing no at­tempt to catch us. It’s like you only run if you’re in the lead.”

In Re­mind Me How This Ends (HarperCollins, 352pp, $17.99) Gabrielle Tozer trans­poses her youth­ful feel­ings of un­cer­tainty, grief and heartache on to her char­ac­ters.

Milo Dark has just fin­ished school but his friends and girl­friend have moved on to new ad­ven­tures, leav­ing him be­hind in small-town Dur­nan. Milo and Sal were voted “most likely to get mar­ried” but Sal, now at univer­sity in Can­berra, doesn’t seem to be miss­ing him. Milo is adrift and has “no idea how I missed the memo ev­ery­one else got to get their lives to­gether”.

At school he was car­ried along in a slip­stream rather than mak­ing his own de­ci­sions. His friends or­gan­ised his re­la­tion­ship with Sal in Year 11 and their bond only deep­ened be­cause she mis­heard his mum­bled “Ohhh, you” as “I love you”. Much of the wry hu­mour in this book de­rives from Milo’s hope­less­ness, and his older brother’s ob­nox­ious­ness.

His fam­ily owns The Lit­tle Book­shop, a tired store where Milo and Trent work. While day­dream­ing there about his lack­lus­tre life, Milo is in­ter­rupted by Layla, his tree­house-shar­ing friend from child­hood. She’s back in town af­ter five years away.

Even though Milo had be­come a “dis­coloured mem­ory with blurred edges and a washed-out pal­ette”, see­ing him brings back Layla’s acute mem­o­ries of their past and ac­cen­tu­ates her grief about her mother’s death. She is now on the wrong side of town, liv­ing with a drug dealer. She is even more lost than Milo.

Melissa Keil’s The Se­cret Sci­ence of Magic (Hardie Grant Eg­mont, 328pp, $19.99) is a heart­warm­ing story. Keil avoids pi­geon­hol­ing char­ac­ters and is­sues. Here she con­sid­ers di­verse per­son­al­i­ties and in­tel­li­gences, while sub­tly touch­ing on race.

Year 12 stu­dents Sophia and Joshua share the nar­ra­tive. Sophia is a maths genius with an ei­de­tic (pho­to­graphic) mem­ory. She seems to be at the higher end of the autism spec­trum. Peo- ple have al­ways tried to “fix” her, so she’s un­sure how to be nor­mal and has learned to be silent rather than em­bar­rass her­self. She’s awk­ward but not shy, needs space, loves Doc­tor Who and can quote from Game of Thrones.

Joshua barely speaks at school. He is re­mark­able for his height and for hid­ing be­hind his messy hair. He does magic tricks and his long­stand­ing but un­no­ticed in­ter­est in Sophia is kin­dled be­cause she sees magic in maths.

He can’t fo­cus on things that don’t in­ter­est him, so his aca­demic stud­ies are fal­ter­ing. Out­side school, though, he is a dif­fer­ent per­son: he could never be over­looked and stands out “like a cos­mic spot­light is fol­low­ing him”.

He is friends with Camilla and Sam, char­ac­ters who re­turn from Keil’s first novel, Life in Outer Space. Josh makes his move with magic tricks, leav­ing a two of hearts in Sophia’s pen­cil case. He pro­gresses to the grand ro­man­tic ges­ture of a flam­ing pa­per rose and screens a Doc­tor Who Christ­mas spe­cial on the vin­tage pro­jec­tor in bi­ol­ogy.

Sophia starts to no­tice Josh “like a neb­u­lous el­e­ment in the uni­verse that has sud­denly be­come per­cep­ti­ble” but mis­takes her symp­toms of love for ill­ness. He is en­cour­aged by her will­ing­ness “to me­an­der down our weird con­ver­sa­tional rab­bit holes” but is al­ways aware of tim­ing, the ma­gi­cian’s fun­da­men­tal tool, as he pur­sues the se­cret sci­ence of magic.

Young Columba is named af­ter a dove. Her world seems safe but World War II en­croaches in Ur­sula Du­bosarsky’s The Blue Cat (Allen & Un­win,180pp, $19.99). Du­bosarsky is an ac­claimed au­thor, win­ning awards for The Red Shoe, a YA novel about the Petrov Af­fair. She un­folds Aus­tralian his­tory from the view­point of a naive but per­cep­tive child, us­ing vul­ner- abil­ity and dan­ger to jut a dreamy un­easi­ness over Syd­ney’s bright har­bour lights. She builds at­mos­phere by over­lay­ing news­pa­per ex­cerpts and pho­to­graphs.

In this new book, in­no­cent child­hood games of hop­scotch, jacks and skip­ping, and school tra­di­tions of march­ing in line, salut­ing the flag and say­ing the Lord’s Prayer are men­aced by the un­der­ly­ing threat of the lo­cal Stran­gler, who at­tempted to choke a woman dur­ing the black­out. The fall of Sin­ga­pore and bomb­ing of Dar­win also loom.

The head­mas­ter de­clares that Aus­tralia is a refuge for a new boy, Ellery, who has come by ship from Europe. “Ellery is dif­fer­ent to the other boys … You must re­mem­ber that when you see him, and be kind.” Imag­i­na­tive Columba only no­tices that he is clean, small and white. She thinks his dif­fer­ence must be in­side, “like a se­cret trea­sure hid­den in a gar­den”.

A blue cat also ap­pears and dis­ap­pears, a pos­si­ble metaphor for Ellery. The chil­dren slip away from a swim­ming les­son near the Har­bour Bridge to fol­low the cat into Luna Park. Sur­real im­ages from Columba’s dreams of Sleep­ing Beauty merge with the height­ened ca­coph­ony of Coney Is­land.

Af­ter Ellery gives Columba his book and watch, he van­ishes in­side the spin­ning wooden bar­rel. Columba’s world then dark­ens, a bell rings, “the hands of Ellery’s watch ticked in time with my pulse … and Sleep­ing Beauty’s face was as still as wax­work, a statue of stone star­ing with blank eyes”. New and old fairy­tales ma­te­ri­alise in this al­lu­sive, finely crafted work.

Zana Frail­lon’s The Bone Spar­row (2016), set in an Aus­tralian de­ten­tion cen­tre, has won lit­er­ary awards here and around the world. Her new novel, The Ones That Dis­ap­peared (Loth­ian The Se­cret Sci­ence of Magic Chil­dren’s Books, 256pp, $19.99), is about traf­ficked chil­dren. They are “the ones that dis­ap­peared”.

The har­row­ing plot fol­lows 11-year-old Ezra, Mi­ran and younger Isa, who are tat­tooed and in­car­cer­ated by the pow­er­ful Snake­skin gang. They must tend mar­i­juana plants in a base­ment in pay­ment for their pos­si­ble fu­ture re­lease. They are bashed and threat­ened but un­no­ticed by those lead­ing nor­mal lives out­side the brown brick house with a Neigh­bour­hood Watch sign.

Mi­ran tells them To­mor­row Sto­ries that al­ways be­gin “One night … we will stand in the wild, and the river will lead us home. We will be fine and happy, and that is when our liv­ing will be­gin.”

When they try to es­cape from the shock­ing af­ter­math of a fire, Mi­ran sac­ri­fices him­self so that the oth­ers can flee. He be­comes the nar­ra­tor for a time, en­abling us to ex­pe­ri­ence the in­sid­i­ous at­tempts on his life in a place where he should be safe. Other voices lead us for­ward into the un­pre­dictable plot, but they al­ways re­turn to Ezra, the speaker for the dead and liv­ing, and her burn­ing hope to find free­dom for them all.

Frail­lon uses im­ages and sym­bols of birds, the river and River­man, an elu­sive but be­nign fig­ure cre­ated from clay. Her writ­ing is dense and po­etic, exquisitely sear­ing but ul­ti­mately spar­ing us from despair with per­fectly tuned magic re­al­ism, vi­gnettes of hu­man good­ness and hope.

The hor­ri­fy­ing re­al­ity of this tale is that there are “more chil­dren en­slaved right now than the en­tire child pop­u­la­tions of Aus­tralia, New Zealand, Scot­land and Wales”. Frail­lon uses the pow­er­ful mode of story as a cry for us to raise our voices for change.

Melissa Keil of­fers a heart­warm­ing story in

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