August 2009, Australia
Three children – one insular, one bold, and one stubborn and growing – dare each other to undertake dangerous or humiliating tasks in the ‘danger game’. Their lives are daring enough, with an unstable father and a mother on-edge, and mature secrets inside each of their little heads.
Only two of them live in the present – sisters in different cities who in the course of this narrative band together again and take on new challenges. Louise, the bold one, wants to find her mother. Alice is older, in admiration of her sister despite the needle-marks and fantastical lies that spout from her mouth. Alice gets caught up in relationships and politics, but it isn’t until her sister arrives that she really acts. Louise comes to Melbourne with the idea of not only finding their long-estranged mother, but finding out what really happened the day her twin, Jeremy, died. Alice has plenty on her plate already, with the school she teaches at under threat of closure. But their efforts become harmonious – their struggles rendered in some of the most shockingly brilliant prose I’ve read.
As the present events unfold – searching but stubborn Alice in first person; and the magic, clever, simultaneously vulnerable and resilient Louise in second person – the reader is also made privy to the events of that day, unfolding in the past, with Jeremy – the lost. As such, Jeremy becomes like a ghost upon the present. And finding out what really happened is just one of the narrative drives (along with what will happen with Alice’s school and relationship situation, and whether Louise will find her mother and stay away from drugs). Having Jeremy’s chapters throughout the book also acts to show the continuing impact of the death of a family member – especially one so young, unformed and unknown – on the present.
The father is a sad and ambiguous character, mentally ill, and still present in the girls’ lives. There are other secondary characters. Alice’s married lover Jon (someone she clings to though she herself is not even sure why); some of her students; and Alice’s best friend Sarah – whose purpose I didn’t first understand, but came to as the narrative moved along.
Ordinary life is richly rendered in this very contemporary novel, which is not only enjoyable, and literary, but political too, at its heart. Alice’s struggles – trying to keep the school open, alongside other struggles in the book – are about fairness, strength and daring. Realistically, the quiet and alone and hard-done-by characters don’t always come out on top, such as young Jeremy. Layered within the themes, descriptions and dialogue, too, are references to confusion and alienation, consumerism, youthful dissatisfaction, drug use and other modern societal issues. I can’t emphasise enough, though, how fulfilling the writing itself is, so that while a chord is being struck deep and low, your imagination is ensconced in the characters and their rooms, cafes, schools, backyards, city streets; and deep within their vivid, colourful and sense-filled childhood.
Another of the themes is imagination and escape, not just for children with a difficult home and school life, but escape in an adult present, both physical and mental. And the effect of great escapes (such as their mother’s physical one, or their father’s – into the bottle) on generation next. Louise’s drugs and Alice’s sex are other complex explorations of that fine line between retreat and daring. When does it hurt others? When is that actually inevitable? When is it okay to escape and when is it time to stand up?
The dialogue flows very naturally, but there were times (and this is my only, tiny qualm) where every character was very open and said what they meant. Occasionally this crossed into unbelieving territory for me. I wish that people spoke like that. And people like Alice and Louise might do… but at points, every character states their thoughts a little too defiantly.
Ashton shows us a difficult world, an unfair and confronting and complicated world, where comfort and pieces of happiness come out of living right on that edge of brave and daring. And she writes lively, originally, masterfully, unexpectedly. I was completely absorbed.