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In which Netty reads Houellebeq’s Atomised and wonders what’s French for “not my cup of tea” …

July 29, 2015

So when you think about France, what comes to mind? For me, it’s the Eiffel Tower, baguettes, jaunty berets, the River Seine, Champagne, cheese, the Champs D’Elysee … so basically, landmarks and the culinary. All the usual clichés.

Not necessarily someone you'd expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with ...

Not necessarily someone you’d expect to have a ripsnortingly fun night out with …

Andy says it was his idea to read Michel Houellebecq’s Atomised, but I do recall I was equally enthusiastic – the French author having been reasonably high up my to-read list for a while now. (It’s a pretty long list.) I was under the impression – not incorrect – that he was the enfant terrible of modern literature in that country; to my mind a French version of, say, Will Self. Or Chuck Palahniuk. I was sort of right – Houellebecq, to this reader, lacks the dark, sly wit and audacious verve, respectively, of the former pair.

Or maybe’s it my old bete noir – the whole “lost in translation” thing (for the record, Atomised was translated by Irishman Frank Wynne, who shared the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award with Houellebecq for this work.)

But I suspect not. Because there is something else that springs to mind when one thinks about all things Francophile – and that is Satre-styled existentialism. There’s more than a bit of that going on in these pages. But, you know, they’re French. It’s in their DNA, non?

Actually, Sartre has been tossed around by Andy and me as a possible ANRC candidate for a few years now. He usually ends up getting rejected – by me – on the grounds that it’ll be too hard. I attempted to read Nausea at high school but gave up. Perhaps it would have been easier if I’d tried to read it in English (boom! tish!)

OK, so we’ve established Andy didn’t like the book, and didn’t even hate it enough to like it. You can read his hilarious put-down here. As for me, I wouldn’t say I particularly liked it either – I found it quite dark, unremittingly bleak, incorporating an extremely pessimistic world view and devoid of hope for mankind in the future. Now, that is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me – after all, I am a HUGE fan of The Cure – but this novel left me feeling a bit depressed. For about a nanosecond – I’ve always been a glass half-full kinda gal. But if you’re not, either don’t read it, or up your Xanax prescription before you do. Which does kind of defeat the purpose.

Interestingly, Houellebeq’s mother Lucie Ceccaldi, from whom he is estranged, published her own book in 2008 (Atomised, his second novel, was published in 2001) to publicly correct perceived wrongs in the latter about the character she believes to be based on herself.

It appears she’s not off target on that assumption. Because Houellebeq has not only given one of his two main protagonists his name, he has also given the character his own back story. And in Atomised, the mother “character” (who shares Houellebeq’s mother’s surname) does not come out of things smelling like les fleurs, to put it mildly. In fact, she’s a selfish, pleasure-seeking narcissist only too keen to offload her two young sons in pursuit of her own desires. Houellebeq skewers 1960s hippie culture, its forebears and its offspring at every given opportunity throughout these pages. Some people go to a shrink to sort out the mess of their upbringing; others air their family’s dirty laundry among the pages of a book. No prizes for guessing into which camp the Ceccaldi/Houellebeqs fall …

Back to the book then. It is essentially the story of two half-brothers, Michel Djerzinski and Bruno Clement, set against the backdrop of the mid-to-late 20th century, and then, in the epilogue, casting forward into the future. As the novel opens, Michel, a fortysomething molecular biologist at the forefront of his field, is having something of a mid-life crisis, so he takes a year off his position to “think”. His older half-brother Bruno (they share the same mother), a divorced ex-schoolteacher, is also in the throes of a mid-life crisis, one which he is handling in the more traditional way.

The brothers, both of whom were brought up by their respective grandmothers – Michel by his paternal grandmother, Bruno by his maternal grandmother – do not meet until it is engineered by their parents when the boys are in their mid-teens. Extremely different in personality, theirs is an uneasy, yet consistent brotherly relationship.

Neither man has a successful personal life. Michel is essentially asexual, not having lost his virginity until his 30s, despite having had a great, largely one-sided, unconsummated teenage love affair with Annabelle, who reappears in his adult life. Bruno, meanwhile, is a sex-obsessed libertine who rarely has his interest reciprocated, despite the number of new-age sex camps he attends – until he meets his match in Christiane. But by this advanced stage of the book, the reader can guess – correctly, and I don’t think that’s a spoiler – that there can be no happy endings for these characters.

Late in the novel one character tells Michel: “In the end, life breaks your heart. Doesn’t matter how brave you are, or how reserved, or how much you’ve developed a sense of humour … there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. You might say, after that, there’s only death”. And therein lies the raison d’etre of this novel: essentially, that life is fucked, people are fucked, and we’re all going to die. That’s it – it’s a joke without a punchline.

I don’t know – call me a perpetual optimist, but I prefer at least a glimmer of hope at the end of the tunnel.

Then, as Andy points out, Atomised gets all weird and meta and futuristic and science fiction-ey, and the reader learns the truth about Michel’s life’s work in molecular biology and where science may eventually lead the human race.

Look, I’m sure this book is someone’s idea of fun, to quote the aforementioned Will Self, but it wasn’t mine. But, you know, whateves. Books can be a crap shoot sometimes. C’est la vie.

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Atomised – Voulez vous doucher avec Andy ce soir? Non? Pas pense

July 26, 2015

Michel Houellebecq’s International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award-winning Atomised was my choice. I’d read a bit about the writer, renowned as a politically incorrect, misanthropic, misogynist writer with a taste for filth and the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism. Maybe we’ll hate it, I said to Netty, maybe we’ll hate it but maybe we’ll enjoy hating it. Maybe we’ll LOVE hating it! What fun!

Meh.

Funnily enough I think the Irish do a much better job of having fun with the grimmer, grimier outposts of continental existentialism than the French. Ireland, funnily enough, being where Hollaback or whatever his name is lives. Or was living when my edition of Atomised was published.

Yes, making fun of people’s names is racist and cheap and offensive – and more importantly, unoriginal. But I’m afraid, once again, you’ve mistaken me for someone who gives a fuck.

atomisedAtomised is the story of – oh Christ, do I even have to do this?  So it’s half-brothers who first meet in late adolescence (I think). One of them turns out to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up personal life. The other one turns out not to be some sort of extremely clever sciency sort of person with a totally fucked-up  personal life. By which I mean he isn’t sciency, but he does have a totally fucked-up personal life.

Michel (Oh goodness! Someone else has that name! Who was that again?) is the extremely clever sciency one, and that’s all you need to know about him. Bruno is the not-sciency one and it’s Bruno’s fucked-up personal life that gives this novel its single redeeming feature. Not for the reason Hoolahoop intends though – the sexual debaucheries and depravities Bruno stoops to (or imagines himself stooping to) are supposed to show modern humanity in all our excretal, meaningless, content-free humiliation. What they actually show is that once in a while the French write something just amusing enough to keep their readers interested. Or just interesting enough to keep their readers amused. Either way: just.

And then, in his novel’s closing pages, Hackensack decides he’s a science-fiction writer. Really? No. Fuck off, merci.

It’s conceivable that I might have responded more positively to Hobblestock’s ,most highly regarded work if its cover, at least the cover of the edition that I bought secondhand for ten bucks TEN FUCKING BUCKS THAT’S A FUCKING PINT FOR FUCK’S SAKE didn’t feature a picture of a semi-naked naif (or possibly nymph, or possibly nymphomaniac) wearing a pair of extraordinarily unfashionable underpants and boasting a pair of quite possibly quite decent (if you like that sort of thing) knockers, nipples obscured by the book’s title. Conceivable, in that not-remotely-conceivable sort of way.

I didn’t hate Atomised. It isn’t worth hating. I even got some vague. perverse pleasure out of some of it. But to be frank the French (do you see what I did there?) made a more substantial contribution to world literature with Ca plane pour moi = and Plastic Bertrand was Belgian, and he didn’t even sing the song. Which is the sort of wry meta-existential fact (if “wry meta-existential fact” isn’t an oxymoron) (actually no, it’s just bad English, sorry) that leaves me with a smile on my face. Something I’m afraid Haagendasz, or whatever his name is, did not.

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Andy reminisces – Holleran and Leavitt

July 16, 2015

So to stop myself drinking wine from 7 in the morning (this is a pissweak joke by the way, there is no chance of me drinking wine before 8 in the morning) I’m re-reading a heap of the “gay stuff” I read 20-plus years ago. First up:

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

I thought I was capable of taking better photos than this,

In his introduction to 1994’s Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories editor and writer David Leavitt quotes a young friend: “It’s the first gay book most young gay American men read, and I can’t think of another that’s done as much damage.” They were talking about Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran, a novel about gay New York in the mid-’70s, and while the reaction is extreme I can see where they’re coming from (Leavitt has a good old crack at the novel elsewhere in his introduction). The book focuses on Sutherland and Malone and their lives in the gay clubs and bathhouses and on the beach (and dunes) of Fire Island in the years after the Stonewall riots and before AIDS. Malone is a stunningly handsome young man, while Sutherland has a small dick and can only get his jollies in the loos at Grand Central Station. This for the most part is the basis of Leavitt’s criticism of the book – sex (or “love”, as Holleran curiously styles it) is available only to the beautiful and those with big schlongs.

This seems a bit harsh to me. While Leavitt grudgingly acknowledges Holleran’s irony and mockery he plays it down a bit much. The whole novel, it seemed to me when I first read and perhaps even more so on re-reading, is a critique of gay New York’s obsession with sex and beauty. An affectionate critique perhaps, but critique nonetheless. At one point in the novel Sutherland decides he’s going to act as Malone’s pimp, not apparently needing Malone’s say-so to transform his friend into a hustler. And later still Malone himself becomes increasingly disenchanted and disheartened by the scene he’s a star of.

Most disturbing, given the cataclysm that we now know had already begun when this book’s characters were getting their thing on in the mid to late 70s, is its prescient focus on the dual obsessions of sex and death. “I’m beginning to think cancer is contagious,” one character writes to another early on. Dancer from the Dance was published in 1978, about the same time a group of New York doctors started treating young gay men for kaposi’s sarcoma; they published their research three years later, in 1981. I’m sure the “contagious cancer” reference is merely a literary flourish on Holleran’s part, but I still remember my shock on first reading it long ago.

Leavitt’s point, and it’s a fair one, in criticising Dancer from the Dance was that gay men do not just live the sorts of lives Malone and Sutherland lead – trawling clubs and parks and saunas for sex, on their knees in train station dunnies, obsessing about their looks and their dicks. For many gay men this is and was as far from their reality is it would be for a straight married dude. Leavitt wanted to illustrate that through the anthology of stories he edited, and he succeeded. The Penguin Book of Gay Short Stories was not the first collection of its kind, but its publication in 1994 did feel like a bit of a watershed moment. And it’s a terrific collection, taking in legends like Isherwood and Forster,Edmund White and Larry Kramer, as well as a handful of straight writers who were happy to write about gay characters (Ann Beattie, William Trevor – although Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband, funny as it is, jars a little with the slightly homophobic depiction of a predatory gay couple). It also contains some devastating stories about AIDS, including one by Kiwi writer Peter Wells. There are a few misfires, most obviously some of the irritating pomo guff from the late 80s and early 90s, but for the most part re-reading this collection was a very rewarding and enjoyable experience.

Leavitt’s first novel, The Lost Language of Cranes, inhabits a very different New York to Dancer from the Dance. it was published in 1986 and while it’s not a novel “about” AIDS the risk of illness and death hovers over the lives of the gay characters. Most obviously, though, it depicts a reality about the lives of most gay men that is almost completely absent from Holleran’s vision; gay men might be gay, but they are also members of families, sons, brothers, sometimes even husbands and fathers. Bars, clubs and sex are aspects of their lives, but they’re not central. As such it was quite refreshing after the dusky murk of Holleran’s (albeit slyly mocking) gay Gotham. And while it might sound irrational there’s something wonderfully rewarding about the lack of resolution at story’s end – all of the storylines, and the characters themselves, are to some extent left in limbo. We’re left to imagine their fate for ourselves.

It was a bit of a relief to re-read these, books I first read in my 20s, and not be disappointed. They are excellent books, and I’m glad I chose to spend my time reading them rather than hoeing into the cab merlot by mid-morning.

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Andy reminisces – 21 books, 21 years on

July 12, 2015

I was made redundant a month ago (don’t worry, I was and continue to be very very happy about this). One of the things I decided I would do to stop me getting up at 7 and opening a bottle of wine was read some of the many, many gay books I read in London around 1993-95, when I came out (late bloomer). And then, with typical self-indulgence, I decided I’d blog about them too. So that three people could read about it.

The things you find in a copy of a book you haven't read since you lived in London in 1995... both these clubs, Substation and GAY, closed a few years ago.

The things you find in a copy of a book you haven’t opened since you lived in London in 1995… both these clubs closed a few years ago.

There was a cerebral angle to my coming to terms with my sexuality as a 20-something, mostly because I was a wanker and thought I was intellectual, like. Also I was a huge reader. These elements overlapped, particularly once I was in London and free of the pretty much fascist tendencies of the area of rural Victoria that was my home during the early ’90s. (Given the recent reaction of the Gippsland Times, my first employer in those very same early ’90s, to Nationals MP Darren Chester’s astonishingly brave (and very surprising) decision to announce his support for marriage equality, “pretty much fascist” seems still pretty much accurate.)

I will admit that reading about my homo brethren, at the time, was probably a gutless distraction, for a while, from actually, er, “interacting” with them…

Not all of the books I’ll read date from exactly 21 years ago. I still remember buying Edmund White’s A Boy’s Own Story at the long-gone Angus & Robertson on Swanston St on March 13, 1992, and later depositing it beneath my seat at the Melbourne Tennis Centre as I watched the Amy Grant concert I was in town with friends to see. Why was I buying Edmund White novels and attending “contemporary Christian music” gigs on the same day? Your guess is as good as mine.

There are one or two books I’d like to think I read in London but know I didn’t buy until I was back in Australia – things like Christos Tsiolkas’s Loaded, as well as David Leavitt’s The Lost Language of Cranes, purchased secondhand with a dollar rather a pound figure scribbled on the first page. There’s some bleed either side of that 21 years, but these are all books I read during my formative years as an outish, proudish gay man.

All terribly self-indulgent, and nobody’s going to read it, and I might not even bother finishing it, but it might give me a basis for something more substantial a bit later on. It’ll just be me banging on, although Netty’s more than welcome to put in her two bobs’ worth if she wants to.

Entry 1 in a day or two.

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In which Netty tries to come to grips with Babel-17 – and the whole sci-fi genre in general …

July 1, 2015

Well, obviously this wasn’t my choice. I say obviously, because as regular readers (all three of ‘em! Haven’t made that joke for a while now!) know, Andy is the one who does regular laps of the sci-fi pool, while I merely sit on the side and occasionally dip my toe in the water.  

A late 1980s artist's impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later ...

A late 1980s artist’s impression of the main character Rydra Wong. I have more to say about this later …

Although I must say that at the behest of my blogging partner-in-crime, I am a lot more comfortable with this genre than I used to be. I may have even been mildly enthusiastic when he suggested American author Samuel R. Delaney (He’s gay! He’s black! He writes sci-fi! His best book is 900 pages long! Errrr …)

Actually, we could have read Dahlgren (the aforementioned book), but instead we settled on Babel-17 – a shorter and sweeter option at 192 pages. My copy is part of the well-regarded Gollancz SF Masterworks series, which publishes reissues of “important” (I don’t know who judges what makes the cut) sci-fi books from 1950 onwards. I reckon I’ve read about half a dozen of these now; I have even enjoyed them. Which just goes to show, you can’t always judge a genre by its cover …

I am probably more sympathetic towards Babel-17 than Andy, maybe because my expectations aren’t that high. Which is not to say it’s a bad book – it’s not, and I note that it won the prestigious Nebula Award (for best sci-fi novel of the year, that year being 1966, in this case). However …

It took me a while to get into the swing of reading sci-fi, but what I found helped immeasurably was not attempting to try and understand everything that is going on. Sometimes you’ve just got to let the words wash over you. Well, that was the key for me, at any rate. That, and suspending one’s sense of (dis)belief. 

The timeframe of Babel-17 is unspecified, but presumably it is set several centuries from now. There’s a 20-year-long intergalactic war going on between the Alliance and the Invaders. The Alliance have been intercepting communications from the enemy that they believe to be a code, which keep cropping up before major, catastrophic accidents believed to actually be incidents of sabotage. They solicit the services of a galaxy-famous poet and linguist specialist Rydra Wong, who soon ascertains that the dispatches are in fact a language, dubbed Babel-17 (geddit?)

Here’s where things get a bit complicated – the whole novel is based on a non-linguistic concept known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: “that language actively shapes perception and mental processes” (I am quoting here from Adam Roberts’ introduction to my copy of the novel). The character of Wong, who speaks multiple earth and extraterrestrial languages, also displays telepathic tendencies; she becomes a conduit for Babel-17, which takes over the minds of its users, as she deciphers it.

Oh, I should also mention that Wong, as well as being a famous poet, is also astonishingly beautiful and an experienced space captain. And she’s only 26. And therein lies one of my big problems with this genre – or my scant acquaintance with it – the portrayal of female characters.  

I mean, kudos to Delaney for making his main character a female captain, putting her in charge of a largely male crew, and sending her out on a space mission to grapple with the various conundrums surrounding the mind-bending Babel-17, and in the process somehow managing to bring an end to the crippling interstellar conflict (which is all-too-neatly resolved and packaged up by the novel’s end, another major quibble of mine). Oh, and during the journey she also finds love with a rival who may or may not be the real enemy. I mean, really? Now, I might be a cynic and/or a pedant, but I would have expected a bit more than a white-picket-fence ending for our brave heroine.

Maybe I’m reading (boom! tish!) too much into it. Maybe I should accept the (many) plot improbabilities and just go with the flow. Because Babel-17 is first and foremost an entertaining romp with some fantastically fun characters. The night Wong spends in Transport town with an out-of-his-depth customs officer while she is assembling her crew is riotous. Later, a touching camaraderie develops between the crew, who have unwittingly co-opted the services of an onboard saboteur who not only threatens the mission but could also cost them their lives. On face value this is a journey that is not going to end well. But then – oh. I already pre-empted that, didn’t I? Dang. 

The problem, as far as I can see it, is that sci-fi (like heavy metal) is a prejudged genre like no other. The people who say they “hate” sci-fi (and I used to be one of those people) are unlikely to have read much of it, or maybe even any at all. And herein lies its issue as far as attracting new readers. I can say with confidence that were it not for Andy’s influence, I would not have read any sci-fi. But I am pleased that I did. I reckon it makes us a little less ignorant and a little more likely to give thought to what lies beyond both space and time. And that can only be a good thing.

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Babel 17 – Andy is a little lost for words

June 29, 2015

A few years ago Netty and I went to a Melbourne Writers Festival event featuring China Mieville and Alastair Reynolds. I know why I was there, although I have to say I can’t really remember why Netty was. At some point during the discussion Mieville namechecked Samuel R. Delaney as an influential boundary-breaching writer of science fiction who happened to be gay and infused his writing with a sense of his queerness (as I say, it is a few years ago, and I do paraphrase, perhaps a little too liberally). I decided then that at some stage Netty and I should read some Samuel R. Delaney, and, this year, we finally got there.

And we maybe should have got there with Dahlgren after all.

Dahlgren, apparently, is Delaney’s masterpiece. It’s also colossal, and has been compared to Gravity’s Rainbow. Given that neither Netty nor I responded with huge enthusiasm to Pynchon in Year One of the Challenge, Gravity’s Rainbow parallels did not sit, well, so we opted for something shorter and more accessible.

babel17Babel 17 is certainly shorter than Gravity’s Rainbow. And it’s probably more accessible than The Crying of Lot 49, or whatever lot it was. But it’s not necessarily any more rewarding for all that.

There were a couple of things I really, really liked about this book – there’s a scene early on involving a customs officer and a succubus that is superb – and there was almost nothing that I hated. But it was such an awkward, weird mix of things – high-concept scifi on one level, a literary novel “about” language and linguistics, but also a pot boiler paying more than lip service to the American tradition of scifi as intergalactic Western-cum-hardboiled crime yarn – and none of this really sat well together. In fact mostly it just doesn’t work. As a lifelong scifi fan I can look at the work of the English writer John Wyndham – someone who has since been sneeringly dismissed by many – and comfortably say, Soz, Sam, John was doing way better than you well over a decade earlier.

Delaney can write superbly – there are stretches (shortish, admittedly) that make me wish he’d refocused his literary intentions. But there are swathes of it, chapter after chapter, where characters talk like pantomime pirates and behave like extras in a pretty terrible episode of Star Trek (and keep in mind that, in my book, most of Star Trek was pretty terrible).

I’m afraid I can’t be bothered writing much more about this book because meh which means less than 500 words which is kind of wow. Those slivers of brilliance might just tempt me, under certain circumstances, to read some more Delaney. But Babel 17 (was it 17? maybe it was 49. maybe I got the numbers mixed up) left me very disappointed.

Meh.

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In which Netty wanders down the paths of memories past with a particularly memorable Boy …

May 24, 2015

Childhood is a funny thing. And, ironically, the further away from it you get, the longer looms its shadow.

boy-coverAustralian writer Sonya Hartnett gets this, and she gets this in spades. She is nominally considered a “young adult” author, although she also writes for adults (Of a Boy is one of her “adult” books, despite it concerning, and taking place in, a nine-year-old’s world).

This is not my first foray into Hartnett’s writing. Ten-odd years ago she wrote, under the pen name “Cameron S. Redfern”, the roman a clef Landscape With Animals, supposedly a barely fictionalised account of her affair with a well-known member of the local literary establishment. It is very, very good, although I can’t see a picture of the aforementioned member (ooh er, matron) these days without immediately (re)calling to mind one or two scenes from that book, details of which I won’t go into here.

She is probably the most decorated of our modern writers, too – she tends to pick up awards the way some of us pick up takeaway food. Of A Boy, published in 2002, also won its fair share of accolades. And fittingly so – there are plenty of reasons here to delve into more of Hartnett’s output of 20-odd novels.  

What’s not to like? First and foremost, she is a storyteller par excellence. Then there’s her prose, which is devastating in its simplicity and straight out of the not-a-word-wasted school of fiction. And the way she creates and sustains mood through the use of words – in the case of this book, recreating a world that is long gone (Of A Boy is set in 1977) but never too far away. As they say, the more things change …

Of A Boy is a slight novel, a mere 186 pages, easily read in one sitting (or in my case, two). It opens with a retelling of the final moments of the three Metford children, aged 10, seven and five, who set out on a foot for the local, suburban milkbar to buy ice cream, but never return home. I am guessing it is loosely based on the (in)famous case of the Beaumont children, who disappeared at a similar age from a South Australian beach in 1966; no trace of those children has ever been found.

The Metford children’s disappearance is just another issue to add to the ever-growing pile of worries that afflict nine-year-old Adrian. He is an anxious little boy who lives with Beattie, his hard-nosed, 60-year-old grandmother (or grandmonster, as he sometimes thinks of her), and his uncle Rory, an agrophobic twentysomething who struggles with the mental demons left behind by a car accident that killed his best mate.

Adrian has been abandoned by a father who doesn’t want him and a mother (Beattie’s eldest daughter) who cannot care for him, for reasons unspecified. Another daughter, Maggie (who has renamed herself Marta), visits often, bickers with her brother Rory, and needles her mother, particularly about the presence of Adrian  – a quiet, unassuming boy – in the family home. Adrian’s problems aren’t limited to home, either – at school he has one friend, Clinton Tull, the last line of defence before he falls into the abyss of friendlessness and ostracisation, an edge on which he is always teetering. Hartnett captures the sense of these devastatingly cruel schoolyard machinations better than any other writer I have encountered; they are so realistic and true to memory that at times they sucked the air out of me as I read on.

Forced to play outside one cold day (it is fast approaching winter), Adrian encounters Nicole, a slightly older girl who has moved in next door, along with her younger sister and brother (there’s that combination of three children, two girls and a boy, that is a recurring motif throughout these pages), and her parents. She calls on Adrian to help her nurse an injured bird that later dies; the two children perform a touching burial service. Nicole is abrasive, abrupt and moody; later in the book it will transpire why she dons this protective armour.

But for Adrian, she provides a welcome distraction from both home and school, as the sense of abandonment that continually dogs and threatens to overwhelm him – as he is rejected by his schoolfriend Clinton, then overhears his aunt Marta encouraging Beattie to rid herself of him – closes in. It is Nicole to whom he turns, but can this troubled pair of misfits provide salvation for each other? The sense of menace and foreboding that hangs over this novel from the get-go suggests not, although the final denouement is even more shocking than the reader could have possibly suspected. It takes a writer with an incredible amount of chutzpah to condemn her (or his) characters to their ultimate fates.

One of the blurbs on the back cover of my copy is from a review in the Sydney Morning Herald, and it sums up About A Boy better than I can: “Exquisitely painful to read … (It) is an almost suffocatingly powerful evocation of the emotional life of the very young … (for) anyone who recalls being a child. And everyone who doesn’t”.

And that is exactly the reason why I won’t be rushing out to read another Hartnett book for a while – not because she is not an exceptionally good writer (she is, and then some), but because, almost two months after reading this book, it still lingers in the dark corners of my mind, places I don’t often like to visit. This is not an easy book to shake. Read it, by all means – but don’t expect not to walk away deeply, almost unbearably affected.  

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