What a delight this novel is – it absolutely deserves it’s 2015 Miles Franklin Literary Award. On the front cover it is described as ‘A sparkling heartfelt wonder’ by Emily Maguire, and I have to agree. Sophie Laguna has tackled very difficult and dark topics – family violence, difference, loss, inadequacy, disempowerment – without leaving us all ready to go top ourselves immediately. She does it via her central character – the unforgettable and utterly charming Jimmy Flick, a clear-eyed but unreliable child protagonist with a unique take on life. He sees everything as part of a great connected system, comprised of subsystems that are powered by each other, connecting or failing to connect according to laws that are deeply metaphysical. Jimmy sees things like “the soil refining to mud. I heard the plants drinking, their stems gulping back the drips. The darker the soil, the more it had to drink. It processed water the same way the refinery processed oil.”. He has the charming naivety of a young child – he sees his father, who works at a refinery, as being possessed of superpowers: “My dad worked at the Mobil refinery in Altona, getting rid of the rust. Rust came back every time it rained, but even if it left my dad raw, his skin corroded so you could see the fibres that joined him, he didn’t stop scraping.” … He doesn’t understand alcohol dependency, but he does understand his father as being like dark soil – he needs to drink a lot. When the Cutty Sark ‘sails’ in the living room, the family tiptoes and waits, hoping the waters stay calm.. Jimmy is never quite afraid of his father, but struggles to understand how he works. His mother, on the other hand, is loving and protective. He has an older brother Robby, “Mum’s first miracle. Her ovarian was crusted with cysts like barnacles in a boat. I saw a picture on Dr Eric’s wall. The boat was deep in the water and there was hardly any space. Only one tiny hole that took me six years to find – her second miracle.’
This is an ordinary family, struggling along, trying to make life work. Jimmy’s father is unable to get ahead no matter how hard he tries, he can’t manage the weight of a dependent family, and his frustration is all too understandable. His mum is sweet and childlike, living in a small, domestic world, overeating and struggling with asthma. Robbie, six years older, is on the verge of manhood, all too aware of what’s going on and we can see how history repeats. Dad drinks and takes it out on mum. Robbie is angry. In this world of not-enough Jimmy is the clear-eyed innocent, the boy who is both too fast and too slow, too much and not enough. He understand the world as a fractal system, with everything being alike and connected – emotions run through his ‘tributaries’ like rivers; his mothers asthma is like ‘clogged pipes’ with ‘dust around her valves’. He sees with absolute clarity what’s going on and is absolutely wrong and absolutely right in how he understand it:
“Her lipstick had a scent that reached his nostrils when she spoke and mixed with the vapours of the refinery still trapped in his head, and made him dizzy. I wanted to warn her, Stand back, Mum. Don’t speak. But it was too late.
I followed the line around the kitchen, seeing it connect my dad’s ears to his head that led to his hair which led to the fluorescent bar of light via the core that hung down from the blind. Then into the quiet pocket of our waiting, I spoke. ‘Are The Good Times Really Over?’ Merle Haggard’s song leapt from between my teeth without warning. Dad looked at me in the land between anger and laughter. A land like a horizon; if you put a foot too heavily on either side, it tipped.”
Life is hard. And in the middle of this, there are moments of lightness and joy – when the dad takes the boys out to play with a frisbee. When he takes Jimmy away for a week. When they all laugh together. But the shadow of things, all too understandable, is too much. There is an incident – so utterly believably drawn – that fractures the fragile family. Jimmy is then sent spinning on a different journey, and this boy, this autistic, innocent, knowing boy opens a conduit of seeing our world that is truly something else.
Jimmy often can’t articulate what he feels, instead projecting it into the world where we see it. We see how enormous and frightening and fascinating and curious the world is through Jimmy’s eyes. We see how adult relationships flare and founder. We see how people cope and don’t. Jimmy himself is either ‘too fast or too slow’, spinning faster when he’s emotionally upset.
“… all of me fast, my cylinders and cells revolving, my tubes turning, molecules colliding…I was as fast as the helicopter when you pull the string and off it flies, rotors spinning fast enough to cut off a head. I was too fast for my skin to hold. If something spins that fast, speed turns it invisible and all the invisible silent languages come at you in a rush and blow you apart, like a bomb.”
Jimmy’s central preoccupation is with how things and people work, how he is different and why he can’t cry. By the end of the novel he has made a reckoning with these things and we get to accompany him. It’s a wild and wonderful journey with this little philosophical, observing Bhudda-boy. And it’s shot through with a rich and humorous subtext, an adult world that goes on over the head of the child, a bit like a Pixar movie. This is not a heavy-waters moral tale, but it does take us into the world of those who are neglected by systems meant to look after them, it shows us the gulf between what we think is happening and what IS happening. Mostly though, it’s a heartfelt illumination of the human condition, a tender depiction of characters that are never allowed to be stereotypes, rather, they are contradictory, complex and imperfect. Like the rest of us.
I highly recommend this if you haven’t already read it.