Nigel Featherstone is nearly a local writer for me – he lives in the country town an hour down the road – but I haven’t read him before, even though he has published a goodly number of short stories and short fiction. How does this happen? Anyhow, Fall on me is his second novel, or novella, to be exact. It is, in a way, an age-old story. The protagonist has experienced something in his past that has stalled his life, made him lose his way. From pretty early on, you know that this is what the story is about, but Featherstone tells it in such a way that it doesn’t feel old, that makes you want to keep on reading to find out exactly what did happen, and how (because you assume he will) our protagonist is “unstalled”.
How does Featherstone achieve this? I’ll explain soon, but first I’ll flesh out the plot just a little more. There are three main characters – Lou, our protagonist, who’s 38 and owns a small cafe in Lonnie (Launceston, for the non-locals); Luke, his son, who is 17 (and, significant to the plot, therefore not quite an adult yet); and Anna Denman, their boarder, who’s in her late 20s and works in a bookshop. As the back cover blurb says, the plot revolves around a decision by Luke “to risk all by making his body the focus of an art installation” which forces Lou “to revisit the dark secrets of his past, question what it means to be a father, and discover …”. Well, you’ll have to read the book – or at least find the back cover – to discover what Lou discovers!
The title of the book comes from the R.E.M. song, “Fall on me”, which is, says songwriter Stipe, a song about oppression, about the things that “smash us”. For Lou, a big R.E.M fan, what’s smashing him is his inability to move on from what happened in the past, when Luke was one month old. It is Luke’s art installation, of course, which finally precipitates Lou’s “unstalling”. Featherstone’s plotting is sure; he drops clues to what had happened, without telling us too soon but not dragging it out too long either. We realise fairly quickly that it involves a loss (after all he’s a single father) but how this occurred and who might be involved is not immediately made clear. The past is gradually filled in, through flashbacks, and the picture is slowly built up – though only sometimes in the expected direction. Where, we wonder, for example, does his old schoolfriend, Fergal, fit in? Meanwhile, in real-time, the art installation plot runs its course.
A number of themes run through the novel, besides the “unstalling” one. One relates to art. I like the way the plot, without specifically mentioning it, reminds us of the Bill Henson “is it art or pornography” controversy which caused a furore in Australia in 2008. What happens when art pushes the edges, particularly when children are involved? Lou is shocked by Luke’s “My Exposure for You” installation and fears for his son. He wonders about “laws” that might come into play, and whether some sort of “‘artistic licence'” might apply. Luke, though, gets to the point: “But my body – ultimately – means nothing. It’s my heart that counts”. Another theme relates to parenting. Lou worries about the “installation”:
He can’t allow the exhibition to happen. He won’t – he could never – allow his son to put himself in the sort of danger that might now be coming his way, their way […]
Hang on. Is that really his responsibility, stopping his son from getting in the way of danger? Isn’t a greater responsibility encouraging his son to be all that he can be?
The writing is direct, straightforward. It’s not wildly innovative, but that doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting. There’s the occasional word-play and irony, some effective description, and apposite allusions including a sly reference to Lou reading Patrick White‘s The Twyborn affair. The characterisation is good. This is a novella, so only the main characters are developed and, even then, Anna is a little shadowy. We know what we need to know – but perhaps not as much as we’d like to know!
I enjoyed this book. It’s warm and generous, and it feels real. Around the middle of the book, when Lou expresses his desire to protect his son, Luke responds that “safety doesn’t always equal life”. Some risks need to be taken … as each of the characters realise, some later rather sooner. The end result is a story with heart … and that is a lovely thing.
Fall on me
Canberra: Blemish Books, 2011
(Review copy courtesy Blemish Books)
21 thoughts on “Nigel Featherstone, Fall on me”
I thought the title was some sort of groupie invitation there for a minute….
Always cheeky Guy …
One can always hope.
There is that!
First, this book is currently sitting next to me on your couch. I feel this is almost like a postmodern layering or symbol of metanarrative… but not quite.
Second, I think I read a short blurb review of this in Spectrum recently. Yours makes me want to read it more 🙂
Well good. I think you’d enjoy it.
It sounds like some quite complex issues are covered in this one – not least the protection of children versus exposing them to risk – both of which are necessary of course, but in fine balance. Kazuo Ishiguro like working around song lyrics too.
There are, actually, but he doesn’t labour them so much as uses them to explore the need to be brave and take risks, and to trust in one’s own heart. It’s nicely done.
A story with a heart…I like that…it reminds me of Little Bee by Chris Cleave. That one has a heart and a half.
Loved the review.
Glad you liked the review, Delia … that means you’d probably like the book too! I only heard of Little Bee recently (perhaps on your blog) … it sounds like it has a different sort of heart, but a heart nonetheless.
I cannot recommend that book highly enough. It’s just….amazing.
Okey doke … I’ll look out for it.
I’m always curious to read about what smaller publishing companies are backing. It must be such a risky business and there is much to admire. This seems like a really worthy and slightly quirky novel.
I agree Catherine … and I love looking at small publishers websites. They tend to look friendly and easy to manage. They are amazing ventures and I guess tend to be owned by people passionate about publishing and encouraging more local talent. They are often the ones who’ll publish poets and short stories too.
I do hope Blemish does well for Featherstone – and he for them. It’s a novel that should appeal to many readers I think.
I was amused to see on the front cover of our newspaper’s daily liftout that REM is calling it quits. Lou would be sad!
Sounds like a good read with a nice balance. You could go visit the author some afternoon and ask for his autograph or just sit outside his house and play stalker and REM songs 🙂
It is a good read … unfortunately due to a conflagration of major medical problems in family and friends over the last few months I missed the launch of this book which was here in Canberra. I hear he may have another book in the offing so you never know I might get to that … and could take this with me for back-signing.
I’m happy to see this review, especially since I’ve been looking around for the book online and discovering that most of the other mentions are inside hard-copy newspapers over the seas and far away, hiding in the paper folds and cunning as an antechinus. “A good story, a strong sense of place, and avoids the clichés of parent-child conflict,” believes The Age, according to Mr Featherstone’s Open to Public website. (And an extract from the book there too, which makes me glad.)
I think that’s a good summation form The Age. I nearly wrote about the place. There is a sense of place … and I think that sense, which is of a small somewhat parochial place, does play a role in the novel. You don’t really get a sense of a city, but then Launceston isn’t a big city. It reads more like a rather large country town with a wider mix of people than you get in a small place but not so large that it feels impersonal. And that feeds nicely into the novel where there’s some tension between a fairly close and supportive neighbourhood community and potentially conflicting but partly anonymous forces just on the edge. Hmmm, I suppose I should have put that in the review!
This sounds interesting. But what caught my attention is the book cover. The winner of this year’s Giller Prize, top lit. award in Canada, is Half Blood Blues, about a group of jazz musicians during Hitler’s time… and you can imagine their ordeal. That’s another interesting story, but again, it’s the cover that draws my attention to. Take a look at it.
Wow, Arti, that is similar isn’t it … not only the overall idea, but the colours too, though I suppose black makes sense for vinyl, and many old labels were red.
Sounds like an interesting book … well, jazz musicians (not that I’m even a minor expert but I’m interested) and Hitler’s Germany would get me in to start with.
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