Odyssey of the broth­ers of Oz

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Living - - BOOKS - JAMES LAW­LESS

as he punches out the nar­ra­tive on an old Rem­ing­ton type­writer. This book, like the Odyssey, which the boys loved through hear­ing Homer’s story from their mother, takes us as read­ers on an emo­tional roller coaster jour­ney in a unique cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tory style, blend­ing past and present un­til we reach its heart-wrench­ing con­clu­sion.

Be­fore he mar­ried, the fa­ther, the pre­vi­ously staid Michael Dun­bar, worked in the mines and painted part time. But his first love — the rest­less Abbey, whose por­traits he de­lighted in de­pict­ing — even­tu­ally grew dis­tant from him and, ris­ing above her class to­wards friends ‘who had clean fin­ger­nails’, aban­doned him.

Some years later Pene­lope Lesciuszko landed on Aus­tralian shores as a refugee from the East­ern Bloc. She cried ‘stray, silent tears’ as she had to leave her fa­ther who wanted her to have a bet­ter life.

On her ar­rival in Aus­tralia, while strug­gling to in­stall a pi­ano which her fa­ther had taught her to play, she was helped by Michael Dun­bar whom she for­tu­itously met on the street.

There is a won­der­ful de­scrip­tion of an im­mi­grant’s bat­tle with an adop­tive lan­guage here as Pene­lope, at­tracted to Michael who later be­came her hus­band, tries to plant her own words in the mid­dle of her sen­tence to in­vite him to visit her.

The once-bit­ten, twice-shy Michael on the other hand was nat­u­rally, ini­tially ap­pre­hen­sive. ‘When he kissed her he tasted Europe, but also the taste of not-abbey’, and he wasn’t so much afraid of be­ing left again ‘as con­demn­ing some­one else to sec­ond best’.

Once mar­ried, Pene­lope pro­ceeds to bring up her chil­dren with love of mu­sic and story un­til her un­timely and painful death from can­cer.

The deep af­fec­tion Michael and the boys feel for Pene­lope and she for them six months be­fore she dies is cap­tured mov­ingly by Matthew: ‘I see the boys and tan­gled arms. I see our mother cloaked around them… when boys were only that, just boys, and mur­der­ers still just men.’

Zusak is a mas­ter of fore­shad­ow­ing when, for ex­am­ple, the other broth­ers were pre­pared to sell their ram­shackle home, Clay the fourth brother wanted to keep it as a mem­ory as ‘one night he would find beauty there. And com­mit his great­est mis­take’.

This tantalising, re­peated non-telling through­out the novel ratch­ets up the sus­pense in short snappy sen­tences and the prose sings with spunky orig­i­nal­ity. Matthew ob­serves a pink and grey sky as ‘the best graf­fiti in town’. And the au­thor, who is fond of tri­ads also jux­ta­poses an­i­mate and inan­i­mate like a meta­phys­i­cal poet when, for ex­am­ple, through the voice of Matthew, he refers to Pene­lope first set­ting foot in Aus­tralia ‘with a suit­case and a scrunched-up stare’.

The fa­ther re­turns out of the blue years later to ask the boys to help him build a bridge over a river on his land. Clay agrees to do this and the sym­bol­ism is clear: in build­ing the bridge he is try­ing to heal the rift be­tween fa­ther and sons. And Clay is pre­pared to make a supreme sac­ri­fice in so do­ing.

In­deed if there is a theme in the novel, that would seem to be it — that there is al­ways the hope that things bro­ken can be made good again.

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