Ostensibly this short novel is about a man wracked with guilt because he thinks he has hit somebody with his car and never stopped to find out, never looked back. He spends his days trawling the hospitals, police stations, desperately hoping to find the person that he thinks he has hit.
In fact, the reader will quickly find it is a novel about the unnamed man and his history. His parents fled not one country but two, escaping first Iraq, and then Turkey, eventually landing in Australia. Our protagonist’s father ran off into the bush as soon as their boat hit the shores and our man was bounced around from town to town, foster parents to foster parents, all in all, seven times.
As he searches for the man or woman that he thinks he has hit with his car, people and objects evoke memories from his transient past, and this past, as you can imagine with all the moving and different towns leads to some interesting anecdotes. As he searches, he ponders and muses, posing philosophical questions to himself. The writing is very descriptive, but at times the wayward narrative sometimes becomes a little too wayward and becomes disjointed, unraveling like a ball of wool, and can feel like a collection of vignettes cobbled together with the same unraveled wool, the author rolling them back together back into the ball trying to keep the narrative together. It is a shame because there are passages in this book where the writing is sublime and the subject matter interesting and compelling, with some extremely enjoyable facts and stories. However, as if in contradiction to these passages there are times where it just seems like waffle and superfluous thoughts.
There is a great relationship he forms with this young aboriginal girl who he refers to as the “Poetess”. Her character was the highlight of the book for me. There is a sexual tension between the two and the Poetess has lived life tough. She is quiet but has this, how is the best way to describe it? She is like a coiled spring which at any moment could violently uncoil and release a tension both furtive and powerful. There is a great passage where she displays this, probably my favourite part of the novel. She says what she thinks, straight up, and the word “guile” is not in her vocabulary. She possesses a razor-sharp wit that she wields frequently. The two form a peculiar friendship and she helps him in his pursuit.
There is something about this novel which just does not click with me. It feels like an opportunity has been missed. It is by no means a bad novel, and as I have said beforehand parts of it are brilliant with superb writing,
“I have not been able to obliterate the past completely, my life, I now see, has really been no more than a chipping away at its solid mass, chipping away as a sculptor at a block of stone until, rather than the emergence of a shape, there is nothing but powder at my feet.”
With this novel, Hughes touches on subjects such as domestic violence, refugees, racism and the guilt of colonization and genocide of the indigenous population, a guilt that cannot be assuaged by the current generation. And perhaps this is what the guilt felt by the protagonist is meant to portray, a guilt that he cannot assuage. I do think a major premise of this novel is the protagonist’s self-discovery through memories he uncovers. Memories that he had either forgotten or repressed,
“The scar tissue of memory grows as hard as shell. Or at least it does until you want something to remain. Then the trying to remember is like an acid that dissolves all it clings to. Perhaps the only way to remember is to try to forget so that what stays is like the perfume of a flower -or, better yet, a barehanded snatching from the flames. I can feel it now, the memory, pushing like shadow at my feet, quiet and grey. The ash that remains. A decent and at times very enjoyable read. 3.5 Stars.
John Hughes is a Sydney-based writer whose work has been recognised in a number of awards. His first book, The Idea of Home, won the 2005 NSW Premier’s Award for Non-Fiction and the 2006 National Biography Award. Someone Else: Fictional Essays, won the Adelaide 2008 Festival Award for Innovation and the 2008 Queensland Premier’s Award for Short Stories. His previous books, The Remnants and Gardens of Sorrow, were received to critical acclaim.
John is currently Senior Master in English and Senior Librarian at Sydney Grammar School.