Allen & Unwin, Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, Focus on WA writers, general, Publisher, Reading Projects, TBR 21

‘Honeybee’ by Craig Silvey

Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 432 pages; 2020.

Craig Silvey’s latest novel, Honeybee, is a nice reminder that I ought to always come at books with an open mind. For various reasons, I had not expected to like this book*, but I was pleasantly surprised by how entertaining I found it.

It deals with some universal issues, some of which might be triggering, including drug use, criminality, suicide, domestic violence and sexual identity, but does so in an empathetic manner, free from sensationalism.

And it’s super easy to read, not because the prose is pedestrian, but because it lacks literary flourish — indeed, I would brand it as “general fiction” and it could certainly slot into the Young Adult genre with no problem. (I say all this by way of putting the book into context, rather than being snobby about it.)

An unlikely friendship

The story is set in and around Perth (Silvey is a local author) and focuses on a troubled teenager trying to figure out their identity.

When the book opens, 14-year-old Sam Watson, who also goes by the pet name of “Honeybee”, is contemplating suicide by jumping off a bridge. By sheer coincidence, an elderly man called Vic is on the same overpass planning the same thing. The pair end up saving each other and forge an unlikely friendship.

Honeybee charts this friendship through enormous ups and downs as Sam’s family loyalties are tested (his alcoholic mother is addicted to drugs and his step-father is abusive and domineering), while Vic is coming to terms with the loss of his beloved wife after a long and happy marriage.

PLOT SPOILER

It’s almost impossible to write about this book without mentioning the key issue at its heart: Sam is a boy who wants to be a girl, and it is this confusion over his sexual identity that is the cause of so much heartache. When he becomes homeless, he moves in with Vic, who provides the moral support required to become his true, authentic self — but there’s a few bumps along the way.

END OF PLOT SPOILER

The story, which is essentially about learning to love and accept yourself before you can love and accept others, is narrated in the first-person by Sam, who is a naive soul, full of kindness, sensitivity and confusion. He loves fashion and food, tolerates his mother’s bad habits and circle of friends, but dreams of a better life: he knows he lives in the margins but can’t see a way out.

The narrative moves forward via a series of set pieces in which Sam develops his talent for cooking (the descriptions of food are so mouth-wateringly delicious I often felt hungry reading this book), befriends a drag queen, enters therapy and plots a bank robbery.

There’s a few farcical moments, some scary moments, sad moments and violent moments. But there are also a few moments which strain readerly belief; for all its focus on important “issues” there is an element of far-fetched boys’ own adventure that might not be to everyone’s liking (and which I had problems with in Silvey’s debut novel, Jasper Jones, written 11 years earlier).

An entertaining fast-paced read

But all that aside, Honeybee is an entertaining — and tender — read. It’s full of heart and warmth and humanity. Don’t expect anything highbrow. This is a fun read with fun, vividly alive, characters and you’ll race through it in no time! Sure, it’s probably not Silvey’s tale to tell, but I think his intentions come from the right place.

At this stage, Honeybee, which was Dymock’s Book of the Year for 2020, is only available in Australia. (I can’t find a publication date for it in other territories.)

The author is appearing at the Perth Festival this weekend (20 February) and if you purchase a ticket you can watch the session online at home, wherever you are in the world, for up to two weeks after the event. To find out more, visit the Perth Festival website.

For another take on this novel, please see Tony’s review at Tony’s Reading List.

* I was not a fan of his debut novel, Jasper Jones, though the rest of the world disagreed with me, and having heard a little bit about what this new book is about, I had to wonder about his right to tell a story that is not his lived experience and might be better coming from someone in the trans community.

This is my 4th book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. 

And because Silvey is from Fremantle, this book also qualifies as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters. You can find out more about this ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Australia, Author, Book review, Craig Silvey, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Windmill Books

‘Jasper Jones’ by Craig Silvey

Jasper_jones

Fiction – paperback; Windmill Books; 304 pages; 2010. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Oh dear. I’ve read a string of rather mediocre books recently and, sadly, this one falls into that category too.

Jasper Jones has only just been published in the UK, but it’s been out in Australia for six months or so and garnered plenty of critical and commercial acclaim. Indeed it’s been named on this year’s shortlist of Australia’s prestigious fiction prize, the Miles Franklin Literary Award, which should give some indication of its literary merit. However, in my view, it’s far from being anything other than fairly ordinary.

The book is set in a Western Australian mining town in the 1960s in the summer which opens with Doug Walters’ test cricket debut, in which he scored a century against England, and the disappearance of the Beaumont children at Glenelg Beach on Australia Day in 1966. In the six weeks or so between these two pivotal events in Australian history, 13-year-old Charlie Buckton gets caught up in a pivotal event of his own.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he gets carolled by the town’s teenage outcast, Jasper Jones, into hiding the body of a girl who has been found hanging from a tree. Jasper, who is half Aboriginal and likes a whisky or two, is such a bad boy he believes that he will be blamed for the girl’s death, hence the desperate need to get rid of the “evidence”. Why Charlie gets roped into it is never made entirely clear, but it sets up the premise for the rest of the book in which Charlie’s summer is plagued by the very real fear that his involvement in the crime will be discovered.

I suppose you could call this a coming-of-age story, because it charts Charlie’s last not-quite carefree summer as a child on the cusp of becoming an adolescent. He spends most of his time hanging out with his friend, Jeffrey Lu, falling in love with Eliza Wishart, and avoiding the wrath of his mother.

But while Silvey paints a convincing portrait of a teenage boy coming to terms with his loss of innocence, he is far less convincing on so many other fronts. The prose style is overly verbose, to the point of being over-written, and the broad brush stroke references to racism in a small town (as a consequence of the Vietnam war), just seem trite. (I’m reminded of Chris Cleave’s The Other Hand, which referred to asylum seekers in Britain in a similar manner.) And it doesn’t help that Charlie and Jeffrey feel too contemporary to be living in the mid 1960s. I mean, what kids back then made jokes about “coming out”? I’m not even sure that phrase was in use in 1965 (although I’m willing to be corrected).

I’m slightly puzzled as to why this book has received so many glowing reviews. Yes, it’s a nice story and there’s a real urgency to the first couple of chapters. Yes, the camaraderie and banter between Charlie and Jeffrey is deliciously funny if somewhat cheesy and peurile. And yes, there’s a stand-out description of a local cricket match in which Jeffrey plays a star role.

But on the whole I found the book slightly wearisome and most of the scenes felt forced and contrived. It’s almost like Silvey modelled his style on Bryce Courtenay after watching reruns of the Wonder Years. Throwing in a few topical issues, such as racism, just hammers home the point that this book is simply trying too hard on so many different levels. What were the Miles Franklin judges thinking?