Julienne Van Loon is an author with a taste for grim topics. Her first, Vogel Award-winning novella, Road Story, followed the ever-downward trajectory of her character Diana who runs away from a car crash caused when her drug-addicted passenger falls across her body. I didn’t read Beneath the Bloodwood Tree but Peter Pierce in the ABR found it ’faithful to the essential spirit of Australia – to its abiding nihilism’. Now there is Harmless, Van Loon’s third book, piecing together the lives of a dysfunctional family and once again leaving the question of redemption unanswered.
There is a stark relentlessness to the plot. The story begins with eight-year-old Amanda on her way to visit her father in prison. She is accompanied by Rattuwat, who has beggared himself to come from Thailand to bury his daughter Sua. At Amanda’s insistence that she knows the way, they have abandoned the broken-down car to travel cross-country, but the heat is remorseless and Rattuwat is too old and frail to keep up. Van Loon draws on the mythology of the Lost Child in the Australian bush* to sustain her readers’ interest from the start.
But Amanda is lost in more ways than one. Her father is in prison for a long time and (improbably) authorities seem not to have made provision for her welfare. This meeting at the prison is Dave’s attempt to salvage some sort of family for her. But she is not a nice child: she is ‘impatient and rude’. She does not have the respect for elders that Rattuwat is used to in his culture. She and her older brother Ant did not make him welcome when he arrived at their shabby house on Perth’s outer urban fringe; she uses filthy language; she vandalises precious orchids out of idle curiosity when she knows she should not. Yet a reader’s judgement must be withheld: there is Amanda’s tender age, and there are the truly shocking images of both her birth mother and her surrogate mother abandoning her in their different ways.
The Buddhist Rattuwat’s painful self-reflections make an interesting contrast with Dave’s. Rattuwat thinks he has been a bad father, failing to protect his children, especially Sua. But Dave, in gaol for armed robbery, thinks he is a good man. The mystery of his motive provides some of the tension in the plot, and when it is revealed, issues are more complex than might at first have been assumed. Mindful of a neighbour whose mental health was destroyed when she was held up at gunpoint in a bank, I found it hard to withhold judgement about this character. Other readers might feel differently.
This novella is only 137 pages long and takes only an hour or two to read. But the picture that emerges of the dregs of Australian society is piercing. Van Loon’s prose is taut and compelling, and shows the author in full command of her powers.
* I’d love to read Peter Pierce’s book The Country of Lost Children, An Australian Anxiety ISBN: 9780521594998, but I haven’t found a copy of it yet…
Author: Julienne Van Loon
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press