Fleeing the fear and loathing
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