Is 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).
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)
Note: The asterisked words in the quote are to defect the wrong sort of hits coming my way.