Mozart once referred to Opera as a conversation with many people all speaking at once, and yet all are perfectly understood. In this, the Centenary year of the Gallipoli campaign, there will be many conversations, many stories and many points of view. As I write this, Kiwis are joining in mass commemoration of those who fell in the ill-fated Gallipoli campaign of 1915. And, no doubt we’ll be involved in further recognitions of the tragic losses that were to come thereafter. This is the year of the Great War, after all.
There’s no question that any novel by Joy Cowley will make you think and suck you in. She’s not only a great story teller but a clever narrative architect. A simple tale of a boy whose life is surrounded by chaos is visited by a mystery, only he doesn’t comprehend the meaning or the rationale. Not yet initially. It’s that classic building of layers on layers until the tensions explode.
Jeff is a boy from a privileged household. But his family are not perfect. His brother is holed up in a Thai prison for drug smuggling. His loving, but promiscuous sister is constantly blurring the lines and pushing the boundaries, despite looking out for her little brother – when it suits her. His father is the archetypical rich dad – grumpy, business obsessed with a real estate deal that goes foul, and blind to what’s happening in his own world – to his own family. His mother works, if only to escape boredom of a rich captive lifestyle.
Jeff can’t rely on anything – except mathematics. Numerology and mathematics are the only truths he knows. That interplays with a mysterious woman who appears in his garden during a storm. She reappears again and again. She passes on strange messages, indicating that she is not who she appears to be. Everyone else passes her off as a strange deluded old lady but Jeff is not so sure. Is she an angel? Or something else?
Cowley’s interplay between the false façade of adult authority and a child’s interpretation of reality is highly imminent here. It’s wonderful to see how, as the story plays out, the adults all fall over each other as the main character, Jeff, remains true to himself to pull it all together. It’s a story that will appeal to boys who don’t necessarily want to blow everything up. Perhaps they might want to spend some time dealing with the complications of growing up without the puberty blues. In many ways this tale is very real and ordinary. To mean that gave it more authenticity. I also enjoyed the bus trips and walks that Jeff took around the city of my childhood, Wellington. I particularly enjoyed the tiny insignificant details and that breathe life into this story and inflate it just enough to carry it along. It’s a delightful understated story.
Underlying is the morals of hope, when adults are too obsessed to understand their children. It’s not an original theme but it’s one worth revisiting. If boys, who notoriously shun any emotive, sensitive literature can be encouraged to pick up this book then there is some hope of getting through and perhaps changing a destiny or two. Perhaps there is something. So how do we make that happen?