Jarrah Dundler, Hey Brother (#BookReview)

Jarrah Dundler, Hey BrotherIs she ever going to write another actual review you’ve been probably wondering but yes, I am – and it’s for the young protagonist book I mentioned in my recent Reading Highlights post. The book is Jarrah Dundler’s debut novel, Hey Brother, which was shortlisted for the The Australian/Vogel Upublished Manuscript Award in 2017 under the title Tryst. Tryst is quite a clever title: it’s the nickname of the 14-year-old protagonist Trysten, and suggests actual and hoped for trysts between the teen couples, but maybe it also has overtones of something more genre-like so was rejected? As it is, the published title conveys both the familial and broader meanings of brotherhood, which are played out nicely in the novel.

Publisher Allen & Unwin categorises Hey Brother as Popular Fiction, and describes it as “a genuine and compellingly portrayed family drama of a tough kid from rural Australia”. I would describe it, however, as a coming-of-age novel, and it reads to me as more Young Adult than Adult. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it explains my uncertainty about how to read it – or, to be more specific, how to write about it.

So, the book. Hey Brother has a first person narrator, the aforementioned Trysten who lives on a property in northern New South Wales with his mother, Kirsty, and his big brother Shaun. His father, Old Greggy, is there too, but prior to the novel’s start he’d been exiled by Kirsty to a caravan down by the river. So, it’s a somewhat fractured family, but not devastatingly so, because it becomes quickly clear that there’s an underlying love and respect between them all. The novel starts with big brother Shaun going off to fight “the Taliban in Afghanistan”, where he’d “been keen to head from the get-go, back when the dust from the Twin Towers was still settling”.

Into this mix comes uncle Trev who turns up to support his sister, Tryst’s mother who is worrying about her son off at war. Her form of “worrying” includes self-medicating with alcohol and letting her other responsibilities fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, Trev, who has some lovely moments of wisdom, also self-medicates his own demons the same way. It’s not a lethal mix, but it creates its challenges, and in fact offers Trev some insights. There is also Tryst’s best friend Ricky, and, as the book progresses, their girlfriends, Jessica and Jade. It’s a tight little community, and Dundler handles the relationships well. They feel real, with the tensions authentic, understandable, and not over-dramatised. In fact, Dundler’s characterisation is a strong point. His people live and breathe from the moment they appear on the page.

Hey Brother, then, features the typical YA narrative – a young teen meets his first love and is desperate to spend more time with her. But this particular story is complicated by the teen’s relationship with his brother whom he hero-worships but who returns from war psychologically damaged, suffering from PTSD. The novel’s crisis is, in fact, triggered by Shaun’s mental distress, and complicated by the conflict confronting Tryst between his love for Jessica and for his brother.

The novel is told first person by Tryst, in the vernacular of a rural, teenage boy. It’s fresh, direct, immediate, full of the profanity and colloquialisms that are appropriate to the context – but, here’s the thing, it is also more descriptive than reflective. Tryst comes across as a loving, heart-of-gold young man, but he is about the moment. To some extent we can see the deeper issues at play here – the PTSD, the complexity in the adult characters’ lives and relationships – but these are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Trysten, his life and, ultimately, his growth. This, to me, makes the novel Young Adult – and makes it quite different from, say, Laguna’s The choke (my review) where, although the story is young Justine’s, the themes focus on the impoverished environment – economically, socially, spiritually – that makes her life the way it is.

Did, then, I enjoy the novel? Yes, in that its protagonist and setting are foreign to my experience and I like to read about lives different to mine, and because the writing was engaging, lively, and appropriate in language and imagery. Here, for example, Tryst describes Trev confessing to past troubles:

It was like he wanted the words to go straight down the plughole after he’d uttered them.

And Trev, late in the novel, gives Tryst some advice:

‘Decisions, mate. That’s what defines you in the end. Some advice for ya–before you make one, try and give it a little thought beforehand, would ya? ‘Cause, believe me, regret’s a f****n c**t of a thing to live with.’

I also liked that late in the novel, we learn, in passing, that Ricky, Tryst’s friend, is indigenous. The reference is somewhat didactically done, but Dundler clearly wanted to do what we need more of, that is, to include indigenous characters without their indigeneity being an issue in the story. How you do this is the challenge.

However, Young Adult Fiction is not really my interest. Young Adult concerns belong to a long-ago part of my life. I appreciated Dundler’s skills in plotting and characterisation, not to mention his heart and desire to give life and air to some big issues, but I did tire at times of Tryst’s concerns, perspective and voice. Not his fault, mine. I would unhestitatingly recommend this book to YA readers – and would willingly check out Dundler’s next work. A good debut.

For a beautiful post on this book, check out Theresa Smith’s (Theresa Smith Writes).

Jarrah Dundler
Hey brother
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760631123

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Note: The asterisked words in the quote are to defect the wrong sort of hits coming my way.

24 thoughts on “Jarrah Dundler, Hey Brother (#BookReview)

  1. You have hit the nail on the head and identified why I don’t read or review YA. It’s that “the typical YA narrative” that makes it difficult to give the book a fair go. It’s not exactly that “we’ve heard it all before” but we’ve heard a lot of it before, and while there are probably plenty of young people who want to read about people and problems they can identify with, I prefer (just as I did when I was a young person myself) to be taken out of my familiar world and into a different realm. So almost by definition, no matter how well it’s written, I am going to find YA unsatisfactory (and I have now read enough of it to know).
    There are exceptions to the typical which are excellent. Jared Thomas, for instance, has written about a young Indigenous girl who is (a) struggling to adjust to life at university in the big city and (b) manage the different family reactions to her gay sexuality. It is seriously good.

    • Thanks Lisa … it’s taken me a little while to sort through these young narrators and how they work, what they do, how I react, and what appeals most to me. There are many fine lines though to navigate.

      I must say though that I like to mix up the familiar with the new. I like stories about “my” generation because they can either affirm things that are bothering me or help me see things in different ways, but of course I love the mind-expanding opportunities offered by the new.

  2. Great review. The book sounds very good. I have read very little Young Adult. I suspect that there is a lot of not so good stuff out there. This sounds like a quality example of the genre.

    I like the way that you explained what Young Adult is and illustrated that a book may not be Young Adult even if it concerns young people.

    • I guess like all fiction, Brian, there are examples that play to form and those that don’t. Dundler takes on some big issues here, and he’s also willing to be real about young men’s experiences. I liked that. I think all that makes this book good YA.

  3. Hi Sue, I have reserved Hey Brother at my library. I like reading some Young Adult. My grandson gave me three to read when I was with him over Christmas. They weren’t fantasy, which was a change and by Anthony Horowitz.

    • Thanks Meg. Let me know what you think. I read a bit of YA when my kids were that age, and I was impressed by much of it – including John Marsden. I could imagine reading some again if I’m still compos when my grandson is that age! Interesting how much that age-group loves fantasy though isn’ it?

  4. I enjoyed John Marsden as an adult – must be my simplistic view of relationships. And I’m still thinking about my argument that the earlier Jane Austen’s are YA too, albeit very well done! The only YA in my life now is leading a very urban lifestyle and I am struggling to find something she enjoys reading. I’m going to have to go back through the AWWC YA posts and make a list of possibles.

  5. Thanks for the mention here of my review Sue. This is the first time I’ve thought of this novel in terms of YA. I certainly didn’t pick up on it while reading and it wasn’t marketed that way. I don’t deliberately read YA, it’s usually by accident if I do or under specific circumstances, such as when Eliza Henry Jones released one last year. I’m very partial to her writing and P is for Pearl was certainly worth reading. Anyway, glad you enjoyed Hey Brother. As you saw from my review, it struck a chord with me and I really loved it.

  6. I think you do this book justice in that you describe what doesn’t work for you, but you also acknowledge you may be the wrong audience. I appreciate your points about first-person narratives. Consider if this book had been in third person: we would have learned how Trev sees his nephew, how the brother who returned from war feels, and maybe learned why the mother takes to alcohol instead of something else to fill the emptiness her son leaves. I’m always curious as to why parents with two children who loses one cannot see that their remaining child needs them, but such stories are often from the child’s point of view, so I never know the answer. Even films like IT and Stand By Me have those devastated parents who are oblivious they have a living child.

    • Thanks Melanie. It is a good book for its audience, but what you say here reflects the sort of thing that interests me in reading. I made a similar comment about Mallee Boys – but it had the advantage of being told in multiple voices so we did get more perspectives. Some of this can be done with a clever first person naive narrator but it’s a challenge.

  7. Interesting how the book isn’t marketed as YA but at the very least has a foot in the YA water. Trying for a bigger audience maybe? Which could also explain why the change to the really good original title. Enjoyed your thoughtful review and got a little laugh at your “Note.” 🙂

    • Thanks Stefanie. I really pondered this review, because I really can’t see it as not being at least cross-over YA if not mainly YA. I’m guessing it’s about trying for a bigger audience. And fair enough. Adults do like it.

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