There’s something about novellas, about the way they can combine the tautness of the short story with the character development of a novel, and then hone in on an idea, undistracted by side-stories. This, in any case, is what Adelaide-writer Wendy Scarfe achieves in her book, The day they shot Edward.
Like her previous novel, Hunger town (my review), The day they shot Edward is a work of historical fiction. It’s set in Adelaide in 1916, in other words, half-way through World War One. Emotions run high, and 9-year old Matthew, through whose third-person perspective we see most of the events, is often uncertain, if not fearful. The plot is simple enough. We know from the title that Edward has died, and we know from the Prologue that Matthew is implicated in his death in some way, but was a child at the time. From the Prologue we move straight into a chronological narrative telling the story of Matthew, an only child who lives with his restless mother Margaret, his wise Gran (Sarah), and his father, the ironically named Victor, who is dying of tuberculosis on the sleep-out. There are three other main characters, the aforesaid Edward, who is an anarchist and whom Matthew idolises, an intimidating man in a cigar-brown suit, and Mr Werther, the German-born headmaster of Matthew’s school.
Matthew’s life is difficult. A sensitive lad, he is caught between his grounded, politically-aware, loving Gran and his self-centred, unhappy Mother. Gran, who approves of Edward’s activism on behalf of disadvantaged people, is constantly disappointed by her daughter’s readiness to put Matthew’s and anyone else’s interests behind her own desire for acceptance by the “better class”. Matthew himself is conscious of his mother’s self-centredness. Out with Gran and Mr Werther, for example, he feels included, part of “the special laughter and talk of Gran and Mr Werther”, but out with his Mother he feels “alone, beside her but separate” because although she sat with him
in reality she skipped out of her chair nodding, laughing, flirting and frolicking around the room. People always looked at her. She insisted that they did.
Complicating all this is that Edward is attracted to Margaret, and she’s happy to flirt with him but, “lost in her dream of social acceptance”, is unlikely to accept him when she does become free. However, lest you are now seeing Margaret as the villain of the piece, she deserves some sympathy. She had chosen poorly in marriage, and her lot is now doubly difficult in having to care for an ill man who hadn’t been a good husband in the first place. Her life is not easy, and her future not assured.
Anyhow, as if this wasn’t enough in Matthew’s life, there are the political tensions – Mr Werther is insulted by his students and is no longer welcomed amongst people who once socialised with him, and, worse, there are people wanting to trap Edward in the act of subversion. The net is closing in on Edward – as we knew it would from the Prologue.
We see these adult tensions and interactions through Matthew’s eyes – but we know the dangers lying behind the things that simply mystify (or, unsettle) him. I would call Matthew a naive narrator but I’m trying to recollect whether I’ve ever read a third-person naive narrator. Regardless, though, this is essentially what he is.
All this is to say that The day they shot Edward makes for great reading. Although we essentially know the end at the beginning, we do not know who the characters are, nor how or even why it happened. We don’t know, for example, who this Mr Wether is who is accompanying the now violin-playing grown-up Matthew in the Prologue. It is all told through a beautifully controlled narrative. There are recurring plot points – from the opening scene when Matthew decides to save the yabbies he’d caught to his ongoing concern about people liking to kill things, from Edward’s little box-gift for Margaret to the boxes of papers he asks them to store. There’s the quiet build-up of imagery, particularly the increasing references to red/blood/crimson colours. There’s the development of the characters through tight little scenes in the kitchen and living room, on the street and in the schoolyard, in cafes and at the beach. And there’s the language which is poetic, but never obscure.
Ultimately, this is a coming-of-age story. Sure, it’s about politics – about how difficult times turn people to suspicion, intolerance and cruelty – and in this, it’s universal. We see it happening now. But it is also about a young boy surrounded by adults whom he doesn’t understand. He’s only 9 when it all comes to a head – young for a coming-of-age – but as he considers in the Prologue:
Had surprise ceased that tragic night? Or did his understanding as a man mark that moment as his step into awareness?
In this, it’s also universal. Matthew learns some difficult truths the night Edward died – but those truths include some positive ones, such as that love can continue after a person dies, that good choices can be made, and that not all people kill things. A lovely, warm, read.
Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.
(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)