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Book Reviews

May, 2001


Undertow, Nicole Lobry de Bruyn (p/b, Allen & Unwin, 18.95)
In the summer of 1978, fourteen-year-old Cat, her parents, sister Alison and dog Ben all go on a beach holiday. Their lives change forever. Cat narrates the story from an adult viewpoint twenty years later and the tale is told in flashbacks, bouncing back and forth between 1978 and 1999, with a few years between. It is mostly about her relationship with her mother, Billie, who had been a childlike - childish - housewife who had treated her husband as the father she had never known and can't cope after his death, especially knowing he had probably had an affair with a woman along his gardening route. Consequently, Cat is the one left looking after her and working in a vet clinic while Alison gets the university education.

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There is a build-up, during the novel, to the life-changing incident which has been heavily telegraphed. When it finally happens, it is no surprise, at least not to this reader. Even the title of the novel suggests what it will be.

The story is told in present tense, which I'm afraid I find pointless and pretentious in most cases. In this one, the author is so determined to tell her talk this way, she does it even when past tense would be more appropriate, as when a character is telling of something that happened to him in the past. Perhaps a little less bouncing around between years would have been better; at one point in the novel, we go straight from 1999 back to 1978, without warning. A sentence begins "The next day..." and it took me a minute to realise it was "the next day" in 1978!

Still, this is a fairly readable novel. Cat is a sympathetic, if passive, character, and her often irritating mother is at least understandable. The ending is appropriate, with the cycle of life returning to where it was in 1978 and the family - what is left of it - together again. It won't take you long to read and makes good beach reading.

by Justin D'Ath. Allen and Unwin, 2001. p/b, 239 p. $15.95 Hunters and Warriors

If you've only ever read Justin D'Ath's humorous children's books, you're in for a surprise with this young adult boys' book, inspired by a story that was in the newspapers only a couple of years ago. It is his first novel for young adults and it hits you hard.

Bass Pringle is a nice boy. He reports endangered animals to the RSPCA. He is shy about asking out pretty, intelligent Natasha. But his mother has died recently, leaving a hole in his life and his father's, and he fills some of it hanging around with a group of popular boys. Jarrod, leader of the gang, is rich, handsome, popular with the girls and a young thug whose main redeeming feature is an absent-minded fondness for Bass. When the boys go on a school camp at Bird Island, a casual act of violence against the endangered mutton birds that live there tells Bass something about the darker side of himself.

The book makes some interesting points about decent people being quite capable of violence. At the same time, the teenagers presented are real and believable; you would almost swear the author was hanging around a schoolyard with pen and notebook. There's a certain flavour reminiscent of Glyn Parry.

If this is a sample of his work for older readers, he should do every bit as well as he has with children's books, but be warned: there is one stomach-churning scene that is not for the faint-hearted.


Sue B

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