Jenny Ackland, The secret son (#BookReview)

Jenny Ackland, The secret sonMelbourne-based author Jenny Ackland has tried something rather audacious in her debut novel, The Secret Son. Instead of following the autobiographical route that many first novelists do, she has leapt right in and tackled, albeit from left field, one of Australia’s most controversial legends, Ned Kelly. But, here’s the rub: it’s not exactly about Ned Kelly. It’s far more complex than that.

The secret son spans more than a century, from the 1880s to 1990 and beyond. It is set in both Turkey and Australia, and it weaves two stories. One concerns the 19th-century-born James who ends up living in Turkey, having gone to fight at Gallipoli in 1915, and the other tells of Cem, a 23-year-old Turkish-Australian man who is related to the village where James had lived and who travels there in 1990, ostensibly to learn about his heritage and identity. These two men – James/Jim and Cem/”Jem” – work subtly as foils or parallels for each other. James is intelligent, gentle and hardworking, but somewhat passive. He imagines who his father might have been, what sort of man he was. Cem, on the other hand, is young, directionless, well-meaning but rather self-centred. Turkish taxi-driver, Ibrahim, pins his uncertainty immediately, telling him:

You must know who you are and what man you want to become.

What sort of man he wants to become is something Cem struggles with, making this, partly but by no means primarily, a coming-of-age novel.

This brings me to one of the delights in reading this book, which is Ackland’s depiction of life in the Turkish village she calls Hayat (Turkish, she says, for “heart”). It reminded me of some books I read years ago, such as Beverley Farmer’s stories set in a Greek village. Farmer had married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which explained her convincing insight into village life and relationships. Ackland’s depictions were similarly convincing, so I wanted to know how she’d done it. I found the answer in an ABC Books and Arts interview with her. She too had travelled to Turkey, married a Turkish man, spent time there as a bride and young mother. With this knowledge and experience, and an ability to individuate characters, Ackland creates a world that engaged me.

But now you are probably wondering how Ned Kelly fits into all this. It has to do with a historian named Harry whom Cem meets on the plane. Harry has a theory that Ned Kelly had a secret son who fought at Gallipoli and ended up staying in Turkey. His quest is to prove this theory and, in one of those coincidences that all travellers know about, the village where he believes this son went to is the same one that Cem’s family was from. So the scene is set – but the story that unfolds has less to do with Ned Kelly than with families and secrets, paying debts, and growing up.

I started this post by saying that Ackland has been audacious in this, her debut novel, and I implied that it was because of the Ned Kelly plotline. However, her audaciousness extends beyond this. It’s in the novel’s complex structure, too, in the way she weaves the two men’s stories, to-ing and fro-ing in time. It’s in the recurring motifs like bees and honey, tea and sugar, and woven rugs, that she uses to help keep us grounded. And it’s particularly in the change of voice between the more traditional third person voice used for most of the story to first person for the perspective of Berna, who is the village’s wise woman-cum-fortune-teller. Berna also happens to be Cem’s grandmother and James’ daughter, which effectively connects the two story lines. (The family relationships in this book are, I must say, complicated, and require an attentive reader to keep track!)

Anyhow, Berna provides the main link in the novel’s second plot which is about the “debt” Cem discovers he is expected to pay for something his grandfather Ahmet had done long before he’d left the village for Australia. This plotline exposes dissension in the village, and through it Ackland explores ideas about love and loyalty, truth and lies, revenge and forgiveness, not to mention the application of wisdom versus tradition. As the novel progresses, more of the “truth” about what happened comes out, and the plot thickens as we wonder what will be asked of Cem and what he will do in response. Meanwhile, the Ned Kelly storyline weaves its own path between James, Harry, and the village with the help of a woman pilot called Linda. While complex, it’s sensitively done, with, in the end, enough resolution to be satisfying without being too neat and implausible.

There are many angles from which this book can be talked about, besides those I’ve mentioned. There’s a father-son theme, a cheeky metafictional theme about a book called The secret son, Cem’s family experience in Australia as a child of immigrants, and gender. There’s also the idea of debts due by later generations, which Berna argues is not valid, but which her brother Mehmet supports. It’s relevant, I think, that Berna has the last word in the novel.

Early on Berna tells us that “truth” is not the be-all, that sometimes “life is better with surprises in the recipe”. She’s a wise woman, and this, The secret son, is a wise book. It might be a debut novel, and it might push its readers to keep up at times, but the ideas it explores, and its tolerant, generous treatment of its flawed characters, are those of a humane writer.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was impressed by the book too.

AWW Badge 2018Jenny Ackland
The secret son
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781925266160

25 thoughts on “Jenny Ackland, The secret son (#BookReview)

  1. Three decades and more ago while reading all kinds of permutations of the Greek-Australia literary connections (including Morris Lurie’sFlying Home) I came across Beverley FARMER’s work – probably starting with Milk. And some writing literary and traditional out of Turkey. Your review has seen Secret Son arrive in my e-reader app. Just now. Shades of things hinted at in Russell CROWE’s movie The Water Diviner – and parallels of sorts with brain CASTRO’s Birds of Passage (a gold rush China twist running over a century between there and here)! Thank-you.

  2. Typos which got away on me: space between Lurie’s and Flying Home – and Brian CASTRO (even though there’s a man with a huge brain in any event)!

  3. This sounds so interesting. The plot sounds unconventional and seems like it goes off to such intriguing places. I know the basic story of Ned Kelly. I would probably want to read a good biography of him before I read this.

    • Oh no, you wouldn’t need to Brian. I think what you know now would probably be enough for this book – with perhaps a quick look at the Wikipedia article for legacy etc. Kelly himself is a very minor part of the novel – it’s pretty much enough to know of his existence, his reputation and a very basic trajectory of his life.

  4. I’m glad you ascertained that Ackland had married into and lived in a Turkish village. It would certainly help me accept that she knew what she was writing about. (One of my aunties went to live in A Yugoslav village right after the war – not sure it’s something I would manage myself). Your description of the novel made me think of Joan London’s Gilgamesh.

    • Yes, I was wondering as I read it Bill, what the basis of her knowledge was because it felt “real” if you know what I mean.

      That’s an interesting comparison. It’s a long time since I read Gilgamesh, which I did love, but I think I can see some comparison there.

  5. I’ve had this novel for the longest time. I just pulled it out last week when I was sorting through my review books. I have some older ones (such as this) that I never got around to and I’ve made a goal of reading them all this year. It’s good to read a positive review of this. I’ve read a few while rounding up that were not so positive, but I wonder if it was just a complexity issue? Sometimes when people don’t understand a book, they blame the author instead of looking inward.

    • Thanks Theresa. Yes, if you are talking some of those GoodReads reviews, I saw them too. I felt that it was primarily a complexity issue and that the book was not a good fit for some readers. It did take a little while for me to get the relationships straight in my head but that didn’t get in the way of following the main storylines. And I was really engaged by the characters, which I think some weren’t. But again, some readers can be very hard on characters.

      Your final point is interesting. I tend to blame myself if I don’t “get” a book – which is perhaps not always valid either.

      • Some reviews make me ponder on it. I’ve seen comments on literary books that accuse the author of making their book ‘too hard to understand.’ Personally, if I’m having trouble comprehending it, I tend to look inward. But I like literary novels and firmly believe that they are not for everyone. People read for different reasons; and some people like to get more from their reading than others. I have a co-worker who insists she doesn’t like books that make her think — I know! Say no more!! 😂

        • Yes, exactly Theresa, people do read for different reasons. I just wish more readers (of all persuasions) would be tolerant of that – of “other” readers and of “other” authors.

  6. It was a pleasure to read your review of this book to revisit a book I admired very much. I was sad to read a book I liked so much knowing that no one I know will read it — it’s only available in the US as a kindle book. I too loved the way the author managed the complex tale, weaving together Ned Kelly, Gallipoli, life in a Turkish village after that war, and a young man in Melbourne.

    • Thanks so much Charlotte. It’s lovely to hear from you and to know that my review enabled you to revise a book you liked. I enjoy reading reviews of books I’ve read a while ago for that reason too.

      • You left a few comments on my blog, including that you would like to be able to subscribe by email to my blog. That is an option now: if you choose the “Subscribe to this blog’s feed” link on the right, click in the “subscribe” link, and choose “Feedblitz,” you can sign up for email notification. Mr. Booklog assures me that he receives email when I post. Forgive my intrusion on your comment section, but I wanted to be sure you see this. I appreciate your comments and will respond.

  7. Great review, Sue. Your thoughts about it reminded me what a superb novel it is. Jenny is a wonderful writer, and I think there’s a new novel coming out very soon—something to look forward to.

    • Thanks Amanda – sometimes there’s value is being the last to review a book! It allows other people to enjoy it all over again! I agree that it will be interesting to see her next book. This one showed lovely talent.

  8. Pingback: 2, 2 and 2: Jenny Ackland talks about Little Gods | looking up/looking down

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