Maybe, if they were all as good as this one, I’d read more of them.
Most so-called thrillers are so overt in the way that they manipulate the reader, they bore me to tears.
But Watch Out for Me is way better than that. Richard Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist) and Sandy McCutcheon (The Haha Man) both used the thriller genre to tackle the issue of global panic and public hysteria about terrorism – and both left me cold even though I mostly agreed with the proposition they were using fiction to assert. The reason that Watch Out for Me works is because the characters and the situation are so ordinary they are convincing. All of us know people who are like these characters, and the events that are used to construct the plot are authentic. It’s not overwritten, it’s not melodramatic, and the tension builds in a careful sustained way.
A baby goes missing and four children tell a lie to get out of trouble without realising that their lie casts suspicion on an innocent man. He’s an outsider, a foreigner, in the 1960s when monocultural Australia was reluctantly being redefined, and that’s enough for Mrs Monckton and her ilk. That’s enough for a gang of kids raised in the free-and-easy sixties to start a chain of events that no one could foresee.
As with Ian McEwan’s Atonement guilt follows them into adult life though the form it takes is different for each one. In adulthood, Hannah in Sydney is a pugnacious lush who believes that none of the rules apply to her. She chafes under security restrictions during the visit of an American President but her art not only betrays the guilt she feels but is also the catalyst for events to spiral out of control. Her arrogance is utterly convincing because she has no idea that elsewhere her complacency is regarded as naïveté. Confronted with armed and implacable US security services, she bleats about her rights without realising that she’s lost them along with the innocence of her childhood.
Richard in Rome still yearns to be the inspiring leader that he was as a child, lecturing Hannah about being kind to their cousin in atonement. Lizzie, assuaging her guilt in a Moroccan NGO, gets caught up in an anti-Western riot and must confront the cowardice that’s bedevilled her all her life. Toby, the youngest, back in Sydney from good works in Cambodia, is just as needy as ever he was.
These elements come together in short fragments. Hannah’s story is told in savage bursts of first-person narration that alternate between remorse, irritation and self-justification. The others are all told from a third person POV. The settings are well done: the long lazy days of an Australian summer in 1967 are redolent of sun and sand, forming a backdrop for the secret spaces of childhood. Morocco by contrast is claustrophobic: the tourists are trapped in a hotel where danger besets them from within and without. Richard is elusive but ever-present, a voice on the phone that forms a meme in the consciousness of the others. Sydney under lockdown with barbed wire and armed gunmen and the ruins of old military emplacements is nothing like the Sydney of tourism brochures.
I picked this book up at the library out of idle curiosity. Sylvia had commented on my blog and when I visited hers I discovered she was an author. I took the book with me to a doctor’s waiting room, and spent the rest of the afternoon unable to put it down. I’m not surprised that the library ticket says it’s in high demand….
Author: Sylvia Johnson
Title: Watch Out for Me
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2011
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: Watch Out for Me