Mired in the wreckage of his life, Tom steers clear of the neighbours. But Gemma Buck, living alone with her six-year-old grandson, Kai, working nights stacking shelves in the supermarket, is persistent. After all, she recognises him from their childhood on Blackboy Crescent, where Tom’s dad, Neville, was the only adult who tried to calm her violent father, Tom’s parents subsequently taking in Gemma and her sister when their mother was hospitalised and their father imprisoned.
he clamped the sheet of paper to the fridge with a magnet. At other people’s places – friends from work, people with kids – he’d always looked with an inner sneer at their fridge doors plastered in clumsy daubs. Everything their brats committed to paper was so special, so important it required immediate and prolonged display … And now here he was, chuffed to have it there. This peculiar burst of colour, this lovely intrusion.
The boy’s innocence, despite his troubled background, stands in stark contrast to the jaded politics that formed Tom’s working life (p74):
we lose. Not because we’re rubbish at it. That’s just how it works. We are meant to lose. And campaign and calculate all we like, the bulldozers still arrive, the agencies wash their hands, the media get their little flash of colour and it’s back to business as usual. We’re the soft story wedged in before the sports results.
Will Tom mend the broken boy? Will Kai mend the broken man? Will Tom and Gemma move beyond the memories of their childhood to forge a different kind of relationship? Tim Winton’s ninth novel begins as Nick Hornby’s About a Boy crossed with fellow Australian Peter Carey’s Amnesia, seasoned with Instructions for a Heatwave, cli-fi and later-life coming-of-age. It darkens and deepens through themes of family and masculinity (F) and alcoholic absences (The Good House) into a dangerous underground world beyond the reach of the law (The Glorious Heresies). While I appreciated both the lucid prose and engaging plot, I was most taken with Tim Winton’s unflinching examination of the potential for destructiveness within an unboundaried helping relationship (something Pat Barker addressed, less successfully in my opinion, in Border Crossing). One could hardly hope to find a more caring person than Tom’s mother, Doris, yet she tells her son (p313-4):
people sometimes confuse simple decency with investment. You help them, therefore you must love them, require something of them, desire them, need them. And then you’re expected to forsake everyone else for them …
Gemma made herself lovable in the way some needy kids do. To survive they cultivate you. They want so badly and they take compulsively. They learn to manipulate you. No-one can blame a little girl for seeking comfort. But I think I crossed a line somewhere, flattering myself, thinking I really could be her mother
Doris understands the importance of self-compassion, something Tom has yet to master (p289):
You’re trying to do the right thing, I know … But save yourself first, Tom. That’s something I do know, it’s what I’ve learnt. You save yourself, then you look to the others.
Lots here then to stimulate, challenge and entertain the principled reader. Thank you Picador books for my review copy.
Although never a fan myself, I can’t contemplate Australian neighbours without getting an earworm of the jingle from the successful soap, making this novel the ideal companion for linking to Charli Mills’ latest flash fiction prompt to compose a 99-word story about a nurturing neighbourly relationship. I’m afraid mine’s a bit cheeky:
Another bloody parcel? Working from home, I’m their unpaid concierge? Answering the doorbell kills my concentration. Stomach rumbling, I peer into the cavern of the fridge.
No time to trek to the shops for something healthy. Scarfing crisps and biscuits, I stare out the kitchen window. Must ask the neighbours to cut that tree back: it’s encroaching on my patch.
Funny, I never wondered what kind of tree. Now’s my chance to take a closer look. Reckon I'll take a bowl with me, a big one. There’s plums and pears beyond and strawberries. Perfect for a nutritious fruit salad.
Your comments welcome on post my review and flash. And, if you missed it yesterday, please judge my own forthcoming novel by its cover.