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)