Thursday, 23 April 2009

No less than the Sydney Morning Herald

Spectrum - Books
IN SHORT - Fiction
Reviews by Kerryn Goldsworthy
Sydney Morning HErald
18 April 2009
By Jon Doust
Fremantle Press, 240pp, $27.95

Jack Muir is a boy who believes in honesty and God but his hot temper and sense of humour often get him into trouble, especially after he is sent away from his country-town home to board at a grammar school in the city. It's Perth in the 1960s and casual violence - slappings, punchings, beatings, bullying and brawls - are a way of life, not only in boarding school but within the family itself. Even Mrs Muir is a hothead and frequently needs to be led away to a darkened room by her husband in order to calm down. Only Jack's serene older brother, Thomas, openly his parents' favourite, seems to rise above the family drama.
The story is told from the point of view of a boy bewildered not only by the apparently senseless eruptions of family violence but also by the more chillingly deliberate punishments of the schoolyard, the dormitory and the headmaster's study. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this character is the way he survives to the end of the book without sustaining any permanent physical damage. It's startling for a reader who remembers the '60s to realise how much has changed since then in our perceptions of children, of violence and of the definitions of what constitutes abuse and assault, and there are hints that the abuse of the previous generation was even worse.
Jack tells the story himself, in a slightly incredulous voice that suggests he can't quite believe the events that he is recounting and he certainly doesn't understand them. One of the things that puzzles him most is the heat of his own temper and the way it gets away from him; it's clear that in a physical fight he can give as good as he gets and more.
The novel is apparently autobiographical and is being publicised as such but Doust has done with his material what so many autobiographical novelists fail to do: he has turned it into a shapely story, with no extraneous material or diversions and with an absolutely consistent and convincing narrative voice.

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