Over the last week we have been treated to the depressing spectacle of the Prime Minister and his government reacting in a knee jerk, wrong-headed manner to two sensible and useful reports that hav…
Few novels reduce me to tears. This one did.
‘Down at The Choke the river pushed its way between the banks. The river knew the way it wanted to go. Past our hide-outs, past our ring of stones, past the red gums leaning close enough to touch – it flowed forward all the way to the sea.’
This novel is set in the early 1970s, near the fictional town of Nullabri on the Victorian side of the Murray River. Our narrator is Justine Lee, aged ten. Justine lives with her paternal grandfather, Pop, in poverty on his bush block called ‘Pop’s Three’ on the banks of the Murray. Justine’s mother, Donna, is long gone. Justine’s father, Ray, is secretive and visits rarely. Justine has some contact with her half-brothers Steve and Kirk, who live nearby with their mother Relle. Pop is a war veteran who worked on and is haunted by his experiences of the Burma Railway. Smokes, alcohol, John Wayne movies on television and talking to his chickens, give Pop some respite from his demons.
But Justine is failing, falling between the cracks. Suffering from something between indifference and benign neglect at home, Justine is failing at school because she is dyslexic. For a time, her friendship with Michael Hooper, a fellow class outcast, provides some respite:
‘Michael had shown me his home and a mother who gave me a rose bubble bath and a brother who gave me toast. He had shown me a tent, cut grass and spaghetti. He had shown me Black Beauty and which circle to tick for the right answer. I had shown him the Murray River. We were even.’
Three years later, Justine starts high school. She can’t read, and seems to have become invisible.
‘Erad ot wonk. It was wrong. Stupid. I turned and walked away.’
You’ll need to read the novel for yourself to find out exactly how the story unfolds. I found it difficult to read because I was so caught up in Justine’s life. Consider the contrasts. First, there is Justine’s awareness of the natural environment:
‘They lay side by side, their chests heaving. I lay beside them and listened to the trees growing around us. I heard the branches creak as they lengthened. I heard the roots as they spread, the leaves as they multiplied.’
And then Justine’s isolation from the world and her inability to access the one person (her Aunty Rita) who may have been able to help:
‘I never had words to ask anybody the questions, so I never had the answers.’
There are multiple layers of concern within this novel. These include indifference, ignorance, neglect and violence. There is also great beauty (and danger) in the landscape. Few novels reduce me to tears, but this one did in parts. I have known children like Justine. I’ve seen some of them triumph, and others fail. Because events unfold from Justine’s perspective, we readers are trapped in them with her. Unable to offer advice, unable to shape the future.
‘Dad didn’t teach me how to read or write or speak or make friends or look someone in the eye — he taught me how to use the Smith.’