ANZ LitLovers chose this book for our October discussion because we enjoyed the discomfiting Three Dog Night so much when we read it in 2006. Peter Goldsworthy is a notable Aussie author, with some great novels to his credit – not to mention short stories, plays, opera and poetry and a part-time medical practice. (You can see it all on his website , complete with a rather gorgeous broody photo of the man himself.) He’s won a swag of awards and been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin twice, for Maestro (1989) and Three Dog Night (2003). Now Everything I Knew (2008) has been shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards for 2009. He’s up against some stiff competition (People of the Book, The Pages, Wanting, The Good Parents) but it’s a terrific book, so who knows? (I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them).
The narrative tone of Everything I Knew is just perfect. The cheeky over-confidence of 13-year old Robbie Burns exiting primary school gives way to more sober adolescent attitudes as his year in 1A goes by. This boy is funny, naive, poignant, insouciant, and resilient in the face of tragedy. A flawed hero too innocent to be judged? Well, we shall see what we make of that idea in our reading group discussion.
The setting is small town Penola S.A., (home of wonderful Coonawarra wines) which (before tourist traffic on the Mary McKillop Trail) had – back in 1964 – only minor fame as the birthplace of poet John Shaw Neilson. This turns out to be pertinent, for Robbie’s sexy new teacher is very keen on poetry and too young herself to fully understand how it can turn adolescent heads. Young Robbie is an aspiring writer of science fiction and fantasy, and I think Miss Pamela Peach, teacher of English, history and Latin, has a fantasy of her own about being the mentor of a new author. What are her motivations for her risky interest in this 14-year old? Is she as naive as she seems? That’s another question for discussion, indeed.
Kenneth Cook’s horrific Wake in Fright, (1961) recently re-released as a film, showed the devastating effects of alcohol on a young school teacher posted to a menacing small town in outback Australia. The catastrophe that befalls Miss Peach as a result of her inexperience with booze is of a different order, but no less devastating. John Grant’s betrayal of his own values makes him accepted amongst the men, but the consequence is that he is trapped among them. For the delectable Miss Peach it means rejection and expulsion. 40 years later Old Doc Mckenzie still doesn’t ‘understand the fuss’ (p292) and Robbie still nurtures naive beliefs about her choices (p293), but did she have any? Did they? Small town conformity wears its mantle lightly in this book: does it represent country life, or an era?
The ingrained racism of the era is lightly sketched too, but it’s powerful. Billy’s best mate is Aboriginal; ‘Possum’ Currie is able to supply the boys with sweet sherry to fuel their adolscent mischief only because ‘an ex-serviceman who fought in Korea has an exemption from the Blackfellers Act.’ (p55). Sancho Panza to Robbie’s Don Quixote, Billy is consigned to the academic scrapheap by the end of primary school and in adulthood turns out to fit the stereotype. Robbie’s I-told-you-so, blame-him-not-my-son mother is a classic example of low expectations breeding contempt at the first opportunity. She is the least likeable character in the novel, though the boozy old poetry professor and the buffoon Merv Bailey come close.
All the action comes through Robbie’s perspective, so there are limitations on what we know. He’s not exactly open-minded about his rivals and those who thwart his fantasies. Jenny, at Jenny’s Reading Blog, is interested both in the plausibility of the plot and the reliability of the narrator. (Watch out for some spoilers, you can’t discuss plausibility without them.) Do we believe all that happens? Does a peppercorn tree really have such dense foliage? Does it matter?
There is an excellent review of Everything I Knew at Literary Minded, and an interesting interview with Goldsworthy at the East Torrens Messenger which discusses the moral dilemma at the heart of the story. (I would be very cross indeed if I had read this article prior to reading the book; professional reviewers should be more careful about posting spoiler warnings.)
PS In astonishing synchronicity, Big Pond Movies DVD Rental delivered a copy of The Bicycle Thief on the same day that I read about the film in this book. (Miss Peach shows it on one of her cultural evenings at the school.) It’s an interesting choice of film by Goldsworthy. Set in impoverished post war Italy in 1948, it tells the story of a family so poor that they have to sell the household linen to get the father’s bike out of hock. He needs this bike to get a job putting up film posters, but it’s stolen, and the film traces his distraught efforts to get it back, Along the way it shows the development of a touching relationship between father and son. It’s a haunting depiction of poverty and a stark contrast to the life of comfort, plenty and space in Everything I Knew.
Author: Peter Goldsworthy
Title: Everything I Knew
Publisher: Penguin 2009
Source: Personal copy.
Fishpond: Everything I Knew