Melbourne-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.