Fiction – paperback; Vintage Books Australia; 304 pages; 2010.
Deborah Forster is a long-time journalist and first-time novelist based in Melbourne, Australia. The Book of Emmett first came to my attention via its long-listing (and subsequent short-listing) for this year’s Miles Franklin Award. When I saw a very positive review of it on Lisa Hill’s ANZ LitLovers LitBlog I was convinced I needed to read it.
The central figure in the novel is Emmett Brown, an abusive, alcoholic father of four children, whose violent behaviour has long-lasting repercussions on his family.
Written in the present tense and using a third person narrative, it opens on the day of Emmett’s funeral. It’s one of those scorching summer days (40.4 degrees) and everyone’s fanning the “slow thick air around their hot faces with funeral programs”. Emmett’s widow, Ann, is there along with her four adult children: Rob, Louisa, Peter and Jessie. From the outset we learn that the loss of their father isn’t the devastating blow one might expect:
In the moment of being held by Peter there in the yard at Gilberts [the funeral home], Louisa understands this as the purest relationship she will ever have. Brothers and sisters want nothing from you. They know who you are and they love you anyway. These are the ones who know and in the war against Emmett, they’d been in the trenches with her.
But we also learn that Emmett, while loathed and feared by those closest to him, is a rather complicated character. He never knew his own father, was dumped by his mother and was raised in an orphanage. Despite a lack of education, he nursed a love of the arts, particularly literature and even ballet, and “kept diaries on and off for most of his life”, stating at the age of 42 that if he were to die he didn’t want “any mealy-mouthed, psalm-singing hypocrite talking bullshit about me”.
“I just want my mob and I want them to cry for me. Cry for me, but not too much and, please, I ask you all now to forgive me for doing some of the wrong things I did. Remember me and laugh about the funny times. Laugh about me. Laugh at me. Doesn’t matter. Remember, I was nothing but a drunken old bum.”
The rest of the book charts the Brown’s lives from the late 1960s to the present day. Through a succession of vignettes, it details the brutal and miserable childhoods of Rob, Louisa, Jessie and Peter, including the death of Peter’s twin, Daniel. The narrative is quite fast-paced so it doesn’t take long before they’ve grown up and are forging their own Emmett-free lives. And yet despite their luck at emerging physically unscathed from their father’s unpredictable heavy-handed temper, their difficult upbringing hangs around their neck like a weight they can never quite escape. It seems particularly telling that Rob proclaims he will never have children because he does not want to turn into his father.
It’s also interesting to see how their relationship with Emmett develops and changes over time, how they begin to see him in a different light when he gets old and sick. Forster charts the inner turmoil of each of Emmett’s children superbly, showing how their feelings of pity for their father cannot be reconciled with the abuse they suffered at his hands when they were too young to defend themselves.
And while all this might sound like quite an unrelenting misery memoir, for want of a better description, it is never dreary, helped in part by a dry sense of humour. In fact, Forster has such an acute sense of people’s inner dialogue that it’s difficult not to get caught up in their lives, to feel their pains and fears and little triumphs as if you were experiencing them yourself. What I most admired was the complete lack of sentimentality in the story, and yet I found it a profoundly affecting read. You feel for these characters, every last one of them, including Emmett, which is surprising given how easily he could have been reduced to a mere caricature.
I suspect that I particularly liked this book because of its Australian flavour. Lisa has already pointed out in her review that Forster hasn’t shied away from using Australian idioms and peopling it with footy players and politicians no self-respecting Melburnian could fail to identify. But this is not your typical Australian bush setting: this is a rough-and-ready Western suburb of Melbourne, the same one where my father was educated, and there are various references to Footscray High (where he went to school), the Western Oval and Australian Rules football legend Ted Whitten (with whom I share a birthday — my dad was pretty pleased about that) that made me nod in recognition.
If nothing else The Book of Emmett is a fascinating exploration of what it is to be (an outdated version) of a “fair dinkum Aussie patriarch”, wanting to do the best by his family but falling short because of his weakness for booze, gambling and the use of his fists. I’ll be intrigued to see how it fares when the Miles Franklin Award is announced next month.