Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Joel Deane
ISBN 1876819251, 2006 (second printing), 224pages, paperback, AU$27
Like its striking cover, Joel Deane’s Another is a book that pulls hard and instantly on its reader. Pick it up and start flipping through the pages, and you’re suddenly drawn into the intense intimacy of its narrative. Don’t fight it. This is an important novel and worth sacrificing a few meals for. It draws a very soft line between poetry and prose, blurring the timeframe between past, present and future, and taking us as deep below his character’s skin as it is possible.
Toby and Suzie are the two key characters in this story that takes place in a suburban nowheresville between McDonalds and subdivisions built over human bones. The violence that permeates this book grows into a spiral which neither Toby and Suzie can escape from. They are both victims and culpable, and the readers sympathies are torn between dislike and the need to distance, and sorry for the trap that these characters find themselves in. It’s a painful dead-end existence which Deane captures perfectly. Both characters are deeply scarred, internally and externally. The parallels between them are striking. Both have been abused by their parents. Both are struggling to come to terms with that mixture of hatred, guilt and love that this kind of abuse creates. And both ultimately fail. Their doomed Bonnie and Clyde plot could be bleak, and is certainly rich in pathos at times. But it isn’t bleak at all. It’s redemptive and beautiful, because of Deane’s narrator.
The narrator also shares something with Toby and Suzie, and with their abusers. It’s that same thread of DNA that pulls the reader along. In a stroke of genius, Deane has his narrator as the protagonists’ omniscient unborn child. This sets the whole tone of the story, charging it with poetic intensity. The narrator is a kind of triumvirate character – simultaneously knowing the past and future as the present unfolds. Like Toby and Suzie, he feels, rather than articulates, the pain of those aboriginal ghosts whose bones like under the ground, and he feels, rather than articulates the pain of his parents. It is his pain too. They are characters he loves and knows intimately, forgiving all of their sins and understanding the connection between how they’ve been hurt and the choices they make. The narrator’s warmth towards these characters helps the reader warm to them too. Both Suzie and Toby are damaged. Suzy by her father’s brutal sexual abuse:
Her father. By day an attack dog. By night a mongrel dog on heat. The steel wool of his chin brushing against the soft skin of her arm, her thigh, her breast—all the places she would later need to cut clean – together with the stink of his adult body. Now that she’s outgrown him, Suzie can no longer look her father in the eye, because if she sees him staring at a part of her she feels oblighed—compelled—to cut that part clean. (31)
Suzie is betrayed too by her mother, who disappears “like some wicked witch” leaving her at her father’s mercy. Toby is also abused by his violent father in a way that he’s subverted. His arms are full of molten scars caused by a fire, hinted at in horrible images of a hunter with a jerry can and knife. His beloved older brother Danny is gone—alive but not alive after a motorcycle accident. Toby walks in Danny’s shadow, and the shadow of his father, while his mother tries to come to terms with her own feelings of anger, desperation and hatred in the face of his grandmother’s impending death.
But despite the unhappy story of Toby and Suzie, there is real affection there – a bond between them, and between the two of them and the narrator – it’s a glue of humanity holding them together and holding the story together. This sense of warmth is made even more striking by the torrid story of Michelle—Danny’s ex, and Brendan the McDonald’s manager. The nihilism of their loveless progression, and the hopeless sterility of Brendan’s life is a horrific reminder of what this world has in store for its winners: “Michelle wants to take a shower and scrub until her skin peels off. She wants to scream but is afraid she wouldn’t be able to scream loudly enough to be truly heard.” (97)
Deane’s depiction of the setting of his story is both stark and striking, charged as it is with the narrator’s own sense of his impending birth and the godlike understanding of what has come and gone and what is about to happen in his narration:
The sun is at its peak…pygmy saplings offer no respite…car interiors become pressure-cookers, blow engine hoses…crucifix shadows of 747s, passing overhead, flicker across the earth…high-voltage pylons throw deformed stick-figure shadows…row adfter row of houses offer only umbrellas of shade beneath patios and verandahs…air-conditioners kick into high gear…ceiling fans click on…ice-trays are emptied…
And the day stretches: drowsy; rudderless.(58)
It is the narrator and his perceptions about these characters that changes the nature of this story. The community of Another is a bleak one to be sure—a distopia which is all too real. Death is everywhere, and those that hurt you most are those who should be protecting you. The community is empty and disfunctional, and everyone we meet is poor, damaged, and full of ugly pain and scars. It isn’t pretty, but somehow Deane’s exquisite writing contains beauty that transcends its setting, and hope which goes beyond the unhappy ending. Perhaps it’s the way we are given a broader, bird’s eye perspective of history, that we know that the events are already past–that time is in motion. Or perhaps it’s the way the novel ends, as it begins, with smoke, flames, and an impending birth. Joel Deane has written a lyrical, powerful novel that is, in equal parts, utterly political, and rooted in that realm of human emotion which is above politics. It is a call to action for the atrocious world we’ve given our youth, and at the same time, a celebration of the beauty of humanity. It is easy and fast to read, and the kind of deep, intense experience which will stay with the reader for a long time.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball is the author of Sleep Before Evening, Quark Soup, and The Art of Assessment.