The Better Son by Katherine Johnson

I am always on the look out for  books about Tasmania, novels set in Tasmania, or books written by Tasmanians.  I’m still homesick, even after 43 years as a expatriate.  There’s something about the island that draws me in.  This novel is no exception.

The Better Son by Katherine Johnson

‘Built on limestone, Mole Creek is karst country.  Just add water and it dissolves.’

The green hills of Mole Creek, in the Upper Mersey Valley, 76 kilometres west of Launceston, cover a labyrinth of tunnels, caves and underground rivers.  A beautiful place to grow up, but it can be dangerous.  In this novel, the dangers are not just beneath the ground.

Mole Creek, Tasmania, 1952.  Two young brothers, Kip and Tommy, and their parents live on a dairy farm.  Their father, Harold, a shell-shocked war hero, is difficult to live with.  He is abusive, especially towards Kip and his mother, Jess.  Kip and Tommy find a hidden cave, a refuge, an escape.  They call the cave Kubla, after the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem their mother used to read to them.  They’ve been told never to go underground, but they are careful so they’ll be safe, won’t they?  But one day, Tommy goes missing.  And Kip, only aged nine, is so afraid of his father that he lies about what happened.  He grows up, he leaves the farm.  But he never forgets.

‘It occurred to Kip that there were more secrets in the world than people.’

Fifty years later, Kip (now an award-winning scientist, married with a son) returns to the farm.  His mother is now dead, his father in a nursing home.  Kip made a promise to his mother, and to keep it he needs to return underground, to the cave called Kubla.

The story unfolds through the thoughts and voices of Kip and Squid, the farmhand who tried to protect the child Kip from his abusive father.  Squid is also the only person who Kip has ever told about what happened the day that Tommy went missing.  Squid has other knowledge as well, from living on the dairy farm, from Kip’s mother.

‘It occurred to him that secrets and lies were the bedrock of the town.  The core of all the misfortune that had befallen them.’

There are a number of different truths in this novel.  Some can be guessed as the story unfolds, others are less obvious.  The complexity heightens the atmosphere, reinforces that not everything is as it seems and that danger is always close at hand.  Kip is searching both for redemption, and for himself.

I’ve been to the Mole Creek area, and could visualise the landscape as I was reading. It’s the perfect physical setting for Ms Johnson’s novel. While I was engrossed in the story, there are a few places (no spoilers here) where I would have liked more detail, especially Kip’s life away from Tasmania.

And the ending?  I’m still thinking about it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith




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