Australian author Kalinda Ashton’s new book is a compelling read. In 1991 ten year old Jeremy watches as his sisters play “the danger game”, daring each other to leap from trees and to cross roads with their eyes closed. Jeremy is too scared to play, yet it’s he who will be lost, because this is the last day of his life.
In adulthood Jeremy’s twin, Louise, and their elder sister, Alice, still struggle with the tragedy. Alice provides the first-person narrative, but Louise’s second-person voice is more enthralling. She has continued to play the danger game into adulthood, injecting heroin with shared needles and having unprotected sex.
Alice is apparently better adjusted: a teacher in a deprived area much like the one in which she grew up. But her emotional life is bleak: she clings to an affair with a married man because she is used to being unloved. It is as this relationship crumbles and her school faces closure that Louise comes back into her life, insisting they must discover what caused the house fire in which Jeremy died and find the mother who disappeared shortly afterwards.
This part of the book has the read-on quality of a murder mystery, but it’s Jeremy’s sections, written in the third person, that exert the most intense pull, as he stumbles through his final day. A bookish child – already a natural target for bullies – his life is made intolerable when his teacher suggests he takes a test to attend a school for gifted children. His parents’ poverty would be fully exposed there.
The Melbourne and Sydney of the novel are far from the world of Neighbours or barbies on Bondi Beach. The teenagers taught by Alice – many of them immigrants – hate the state, loathe the police and know that the government isn’t interested in them.
If there has been a crime, the culprit is the society that makes the shame of poverty unbearable for children like Jeremy, repackages staff cuts as a teaching opportunity and persuades families to buy their rented homes while redundancy looms over them. Eventually it isn’t finding their mother but fighting the school closure that brings the sisters a measure of peace.
For me, the book loses some of its grim power as Jeremy’s voice fades away and his sisters take more control of their lives. But perhaps I was unfairly expecting a climactic wham-bam of an ending. This, anyway, is a small quibble about a book that I can heartily recommend.
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