Australia, Author, Book review, crime/thriller, Faber and Faber, Fiction, Helen FitzGerald, Publisher, Setting

‘The Cry’ by Helen FitzGerald

The-Cry

Fiction – Kindle edition; Faber & Faber; 320 pages; 2013.

I love novels that feature morally dubious characters — and Helen FitzGerald‘s latest novel, The Cry, slots very nicely into that category. I’ve read a couple of Fitzgerald’s novels before — Dead Lovely (2007) and My Last Confession (2009) — and both were  edgy, entertaining reads featuring well-meaning people behaving in abhorrent ways. The Cry is cut from the same cloth.

Plane ride from hell

Joanna is a first-time mother from Glasgow, bound for Australia with Alistair — the father of her child — a high-powered spin doctor for the British Labour Party. But the flight to Melbourne, via Dubai, is traumatic: nine-week-old Noah cries the whole way and won’t settle.

Joanna, who is suffering from an ear-infection, is frazzled and ill-tempered. But then Alistair steps in and offers to nurse the child, so that Joanna can finally get some much-needed rest.

When the trio eventually arrive in Australia, Noah is fast asleep. They dare not wake him, and decide to drive straight to Alistair’s mum’s place, in Geelong, despite the fact that it’s bushfire season and the sky is awash with ash and black smoke.

But on the car journey Joanna makes a fateful discovery: Noah is not asleep — he’s dead.

What happens next is a heart-hammering psychological ride in which one bad decision follows another, because instead of going to the police or calling an ambulance, Alistair decides to engineer Noah’s disappearance from a roadside petrol station.

Realistic plot

The plot borrows heavily from all manner of missing children cases — Azaria Chamberlain immediately springs to mind, as does Madeleine McCann — particularly in the ensuing media coverage (including Twitter and Facebook) and the way in which Joanna is expected to behave in court. (She’s told not to fidget and has to remind herself not to smile — “Don’t smile, don’t smile, remember Foxy Knoxy, remember Lindy.”)

And because truth is often stranger than fiction — how many parents do we see on the news protesting their innocence, only to be arrested for murder at a later date? — the storyline never seems over the top even though Alistair’s actions are repugnant. Indeed, the entire plot seems incredibly believable — and current.

It is also very fast moving. FitzGerald keeps the momentum up in several clever ways: she makes grief-stricken Joanna want to confess to the crime, so the reader is constantly wondering, will she or won’t she; she provides an interesting back story in the form of Alistair’s ex-wife, who is fighting over the custody of their teenage daughter and may possibly be framed for Noah’s murder; and she tells the story from multiple viewpoints and intercuts it with short scenes from the resulting court case.

I read the entire book in three sittings, eager to get to the end so that I could find out what happened next. And while it’s not a completely satisfying read — the climax, which has a neat little twist, didn’t seem convincing to me — it’s a thoroughly good psychological-type drama, perfect for those who like stories that explore why normally good people end up doing bad things.

Atlantic Books, Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, Joan London, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘The Good Parents’ by Joan London

GoodParents

Fiction – Kindle edition; Atlantic Books; 369 pages; 2009.

Australian author Joan London is probably best known for her novel Gilgamesh, which was published in 2001 and garnered critical acclaim in Australia, the UK and USA. The Good Parents, published seven years later, is her second novel.

Missing teenager

When the story begins we see events unfold through the eyes of 18-year-old Maya, a naive country girl from Western Australia (WA), who is working as a personal assistant in Melbourne. She’s having an affair with her much older boss, Maynard,whose wife has cancer. When Maynard’s wife dies, he decides to shut up shop and head elsewhere, possibly to Asia, taking Maya with him.

But instead of following Maya’s storyline, the book dramatically switches to that of her parents, the beautiful Toni and the dreamy artistic Jacob, who arrive in Melbourne expecting to spend a couple of weeks with their teenage daughter. But she has gone and not even her flatmate seems to know where she might be.

Under the guise of searching for her, Toni and Jacob go sightseeing instead. But when Jacob injures his foot, he is confined indoors, and for some inexplicable reason Toni heads to a Buddhist retreat. This allows both to reflect on their lives, including their childhoods in WA and their subsequent meeting and fleeing city life together in the 1960s.

Their individual stories, which gently unfold in alternate chapters, reveal how both have never had the chance to live up to their full potential, except maybe as parents (hence the title).

Richly layered novel

This is a richly layered story of two people caught up in generational change, whomade poor decisions (either  by choice or circumstance) — Toni married the shady Cy Fisher, while Jacob never followed his dream to be a writer and distracted himself with unimportant work whenever crucial events occurred in his life in order not to think about them. Their own children seem just as perplexed about the real world.

** SPOILER ALERT **

Eventually, the novel returns to Maya, who is living in Brisbane with an increasingly distant and violent Maynard. The book’s resolution, in which Maya is rescued by Cy Fisher, does rely on a somewhat preposterous and unlikely series of coincidences.

** END OF SPOILER ALERT **

And if it wasn’t for this poor ending, I would have heartily recommended this book to all and sundry. But note, this is the only weak point in this rather beaut novel.

For another, much more intellectual, take on this novel, please see Lisa of ANZLitLover’s review.

Australia, Author, Book review, Fiction, literary fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Setting, Sonya Hartnett

‘Of A Boy’ by Sonya Hartnett

OfABoy

Fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 204 pages; 2009.

It didn’t take long for me to discover my first five-star novel for 2010, but with Sonya Hartnett‘s beautiful melancholy Of A Boy I struck unexpected gold. I cannot begin to describe how incredibly affecting I found this short novel to be. There’s something about the slow pacing of this story that gets under the skin and leaves you thinking about it days afterwards. Indeed, it’s been two weeks since I finished Of A Boy and I’m still wondering about nine-year-old Adrian and all that happened to him.

The book is set in 1977 and tells the story of Adrian McPhee, who’s been abandoned by his parents and is now living with his grandmother and his drop-out uncle, Rory, in an undefined suburb in Australia. He is a shy, timid boy, frightened of almost everything, including “quicksand, tidal waves, fire, monsters, cupboards, being forgotten and going astray”. The all-pervasive fear is not helped by the recent disappearance of three young children from a nearby neighbourhood (highly reminiscent of the real-life Beaumont case), which fills the news pages and has teachers and parents on edge.

When a strange new family moves in across the road, Adrian can’t help wondering if the three children — Nicole, Joely and Giles — are the three children who went out for ice-cream and never came home. When he befriends them his small, closeted and lonely world begins to open up…

The real strength of this story, which is written in plain, languid prose, is Hartnett’s uncanny ability to get inside the head of a lonely school boy. She underplays everything, so it is you the reader who comes to understand the pain of his existence. I found the following passage, towards the end of the book, particularly heart-breaking:

He wasn’t a gregarious boy, he couldn’t push his way into any existing group of friends; he felt that, having nothing to offer, they would recognise him as a parasite and treat him with contempt. The reason he felt he had nothing to offer was that, in his heart, he knew he was dull. Nothing about him gave him value: he was ordinary and dull. But at least he was smart enough to know it: he wouldn’t become one of those wretches who lurk the perimeters, who live the hideous role of whipping-boy, lackey, buffoon. He exiled himself ruthlessly, which at least was dignified. He could not be injured if he shielded himself from harm.
But school is a terrible place for a rejected child. The ringing of the lunchtime bell was enough to cool his blood; the lunch hour seemed an endless desert of time. He didn’t complain or resist going to school but every day he haunted the gates, hoping against hope that his mother would walk by, discover him, and carry him home.

He is a beautifully drawn character, as is his grandmother, the headstrong Beattie, who doesn’t really want him but feels obliged to take over where her own daughter left off. She moans that he rules her days, that she hasn’t the energy to look after him. “My mothering days are done,” she claims.

“I can’t go anywhere. I can’t forget myself – I’ve got to be here every three-thirty, collecting him from school. I get a holiday only when he does. I’ve got to cook a decent meal for him every night, so he doesn’t waste away. He needs cleaning, clothing, carting here and there. It’s hard work, rearing a child. It’s not work for the old.”

Similarly, Uncle Rory is a brilliantly realistic character: a 25-year-old man living with the guilt of a horrendous car accident that left his best mate a vegetable. When most everyone else has written off Rory, it’s clear that he has a lot to offer his young nephew. The scenes between the two of them are very touching.

I hesitate to draw comparisons with other novels, because this one is unique, but it did remind me very much of Randolph Stow’s The Merry-go-round in the Sea, particularly in its depiction of childhood, albeit it in different parts of the country in different eras. But there’s something about the melancholy of the stories that are achingly familiar.

Not surprisingly, Of A Boy has garnered awards and nominations aplenty. It won the 2003 The Age Book of the Year and the 2003 Commonwealth Writers Prize. It was shortlisted for the 2003 Miles Franklin Award, the 2003 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Award and the 2003 Victorian Premier’s Literary Award. It was longlisted for the 2003 Orange Prize for Fiction.

For British and American readers looking to secure a copy of Hartnett’s novel, please be advised that it has been published under a completely different name: What the Birds See.