The story centres on a group of children during an Australian summer and their relationships with adults. Its starting point is the arrival of a well-to-do family, with two young sons, in a working class suburb.
The location is left up to the reader’s imagination. We thought it could be Perth or Adelaide or even North Melbourne. But it is definitely sunny and warm in this poor ‘outer’ suburb in the late 1970s or early 1980s. There are no mobile phones mentioned in the life of the boys and they are allowed to roam freely all day, just so long as they are home for tea at night. Money is an issue for many of the children and the author highlights the comparison of the two families – the middle class dentist and all the toys versus the poorer, working class family of six.
We talked about Rex Jenson, the ‘predatory’ dentist who recently moved to the neighbourhood with his 2 children and wife Tabby. He has an ability to groom young boys but he has obviously blotted his copybook as the story begins with the family moving from their richer suburb to this poorer district, where he would not be known. Rex is intimidating but the boys think they can manage his behaviour. His son Colt is ashamed of him and can barely suffer him. Whereas Freya likes Rex because he is quite caring in his behaviour towards her and she believes he can assist her family. This lead to a discussion of the 2 wives and their traditional roles. Tabby, the richer wife is ashamed of her husband Rex but totally under his control and in financial dependence. Tabby doesn’t discuss the situation with her 2 boys and Colt the elder boy doesn’t have confidence to talk to her. Elizabeth, mother of 6 is a woman who is subject to physical violence from her husband Joe. She is seen through her daughter, Freya’s eyes and is perceived as not loving her husband. Joe, is so frustrated with his life, he doesn’t know how to control himself or fix the situation. The children translate this domestic violence to being the family secret. So both families have secrets which are terrible and worth discussing in literature.
Sonya Hartnett is known as a writer of young adult books so we posed the question whether this book is for adults or teenagers. Why do people write with a child’s voice? Time of adolescence is a period when children are just beginning to understand the world around them but there is the disconnect with their daily activities and they can’t fully understand things. They often take so much personally at this time rather than seeing the big picture.
Hartnett sets up the comparison of the older children who are quite street wise and sophisticated in their thinking versus the younger ones who are considered naïve. One of our members thought the thinking was more sophisticated than she remembers it in her youth. It has touches of humour too when for instance we hear that Syd thinks about being a gangster when he grows up. He and Bastian in particular are still wanting stuff and delight in playing with all the toys and enjoying the swimming pool. Hartnett is very clever at using this range of voices to tell the story.
The scene of domestic violence against Elizabeth and Joe’s dissipated actions with his family are difficult. The scene is written from the children’s viewpoint otherwise it would have been much more explicit.
This is a current topic many children are experiencing and Freya and her brothers have to keep this knowledge to themselves. Freya and Declan wonder what choices their mother has and what would they do. All the children have to work out how to navigate life with their secrets intact, not just the dysfunctional families of these two dads. Many of the other children have secrets too. The local bully has one – his childish adoration of Colt and there is the street urchin, Avery, who lives a very hard life and is the first child manhandled by Rex. However Rex cares for Avery’s leg but there is a fine line drawn there between caring and more explicit sexual overtones. The tension is superbly written.
The two older boys feel they have to atone for sins committed by others, so Colt takes the hit for his dad and is seriously hurt by Garrick and Declan suffers in order to save Avery from more trouble from Garrick. Declan feels particularly responsible for the younger boy as he does for his brother Syd. No adult seems to care for Avery and the older boys realise this. They also realise that their parents and other adults can be idiots and are flawed or have feet of clay. It made us readers feel that children can handle more and understand more than we often recognise.
The large drain near their homes is often a tension point too but does not cause the problems it could or we may have envisioned.
One of the morals of the story seems to be to empower children and don’t make them afraid or walking scared through life.
Victoria Flanagan in the Sydney Review of Books (10/10/14) sums it up well by saying that Hartnett’s
novels are preoccupied with adolescence and offer her readers (children and adults) an insightful portrayal of how the process of coming of age has both personal and cultural significance.
Posted By Sylvia to Minerva Reads on 6/07/2016 09:24:00 am