Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2010

The Book of Emmett, by Deborah Forster #BookReview

The name Emmett means ‘all-containing; universal; and strength’ and although a baby naming website tells me that it is derived from Irish patriots commemorating Robert Emmet, it sounds as if it is of  Biblical origin.  This allusion in the title is clever because Emmett Brown is an Old Testament father indeed.

I’ll admit that I didn’t like the sound of this book; I’m not fond of the misery memoir genre and I suspected that a novel about an abusive father would be dreary.  When The Book of Emmett made its way onto the Miles Franklin longlist for 2010 I didn’t intend to read it unless it made it into the shortlist.  I relented, however, when I saw it at the library and brought the book home, not expecting to enjoy it.   By the end of the first chapter I knew my impressions about it had been wrong…

This is Forster’s debut novel, and although I doubt it will win against some stiff competition, it deserves its place on the longlist.  She writes well, with sly humour and economical but arresting imagery, and the characterisation is memorable.  It reminds me of My Brother Jack in the way that it is so true to what we like to believe is the Australian spirit – laconic, brave, disdainful of emotion, accepting of how things are without whingeing.

Like Andrea Goldsmith, Forster renders Melbourne as only a local can.  There’s venom in the hot summer sun, and the paint peels off neglected weatherboards in Footscray.  The kids play in an abandoned Total petrol station and have learned to ignore the temperamental weather:

It’s an intermittently bright, cold day and the roads are all slick after the night rain and Emmett is wearing the khaki coat he brought into the marriage.  The sky is massed with heavy towering clouds, charcoal and indigo and the deep green of storms at sea.  Sometimes it rains, but they walk through it as if they were waterproof, as if they were pilgrims unconcerned with the everyday. (p68)

Forster is not afraid to use the Australian idiom; it’s refreshing to hear the Aussie voice in all her characters.   Mervyn is known as Chook; Mr Conti is as ‘short and wide as a tram’ (p191) and the ‘ambos’ call Emmett ‘mate‘. (p272).  She refers to real Australian people from footy players to politicians, and her settings are vivid though she’s better at showing us the Victoria Market and the Footscray footy ground than the bush.

Miraculously, this book has humour. On their way to the ballet, which Emmett has decided will be an improving cultural experience to define their childhood, he lectures Rob and Louisa about the significance of it as they make their way in on the train:

‘Now this Rudolf Nureyev bloke we are going to see, and old Mrs Fonteyn too, they are very special.  Rob, pay particular attention to the leaps, they’re as good as anything you’ll see down at the football ground.  Don’t be put off by the tights, son, that is not important. (p69)

Forster admits that the story is ‘vaguely autobiographical’ and her dedication is to her mother – not her father.  Perhaps her empathy with the complexities of love and hate that afflict children in abusive families derives from experience, perhaps not, because Forster has worked as a journalist.  (Though even the most inquisitive journalist might recoil from interviewing a victim to the extent necessary for the detail in this book.)  If there is some catharsis in writing The Book of Emmett, I hope that Forster is able to go on and write about other things too because she is a very fine writer indeed.

The cover design by Deborah Winter, using an image by Corbis Australia is just perfect.  From the dishevelled man’s hand gripping the child’s to the dead vine on the paling fence – and the expression on both their faces –  it is strongly evocative of the story within.

I can’t find much in the way of reviews online.  Tony O’Loughlin admires it, and the Australian Bookseller and Publisher Magazine found it powerful and emotional.  There are reading group questions at Random House.

Author: Deborah Forster
Title: The Book of Emmett
Publisher: Vintage 2009
ISBN: 9781741667868
Source: Kingston Library 


  1. […] The Book of Emmett by Deborah Forster (Vintage) – see my review. […]

  2. Thanks for this review, Lisa. I’m emboldened by the descriptive passage you have quoted to find this one myself. Certainly looks like my kind of writing, if not always my kind of material either (I already have quite a few of these, am a bit over it too!)

    • Hello Genevieve, I think she’s a writer of great promise – I don’t compare books to My Brother Jack lightly! It will be very interesting to see the next book… Lisa

  3. Thanks for your review Lisa – I’ve had this on my TBR for a while but was the same as you – not inclined. I’ll give it a read now – in fact I think it will be next off the blocks when I’m done with my current read.

  4. Oh, I mean to say, I’m impressed by the number of books you get through whilst you’re on holidays.

  5. Well, I read the first three paras and then stopped – as you know my attitude to reviews of books I haven’t read – LOL. But I read enough to see that it’s a book I’d like to read. Thanks.

  6. Hello Melissa – alas, I shall have to ease up on the reading starting tomorrow because there’s a lot of school work to catch up on. I’ve been an acting assistant principal for term 1 with a truly horrible workload -but no one’s being doing my job as director of curriculum and it’s all still waiting for me! So I won’t be doing too much loafing in bed with a book till lunch time; it’s back in harness *sigh*.

  7. I think you’ll be impressed, Sue. I want to know what she’s writing next!

  8. Stop! You are making my wish list get longer and longer, Lisa! ;-)

    This sounds like a wonderful book, and any comparison with My Brother Jack makes me want to read it right away.

    Right, I’m off to the Book Depository to put in a request!

  9. Oh Kim, you can talk LOL, every time there’s a new RSS from you in my inbox my credit card shudders!
    And I’m supposed to be saving up for our trip, not buying more books!!

  10. Woops, sorry about that!

    By the way, I’ve ordered The Book of Emmett from the Book Despository. It was available to order — didn’t have to put a request in or anything. I noticed it was also listed on Amazon with a three-week wait quoted.

  11. That’s wonderful, Kim…just think what your readership (and the BD) could do for Forster’s sales!

  12. Lisa, really excited, the book arrived today! Can’t wait to start it… but need to finish Jasper Jones first.

  13. Hi Kim – I hope you find it absorbing:)
    I’m looking forward to your review of Jasper Jones – I have it, but am still reading The Children’s Book. Such a big book, and it keeps luring me online to look things up as well!

  14. Lisa, I’m half way through this and can’t wait to get back to it tonight. Wonderful. Considering the subject matter, I’m enjoying it very much.

  15. Hi Melissa
    She writes *so* well, doesn’t she? I think it’s a combination of restraint about the abuse – letting us know without being heavy-handed about it – and also using humour in the dialogue that makes this book successful despite the subject matter. I think her editor needs a pat on the back too:)

  16. […] • Craig Silvey – Jasper Jones, on the TBR. • Deborah Forster – The Book of Emmett, see my review. • Peter Temple – Truth (I’ve read it, but I don’t review crime novels). • Sonya […]

  17. I read this on holiday last week, Lisa, and really loved it. Review coming soon on my blog!

  18. Well, this book is an absolute pearler and a more than worthy inclusion in the MF shortlist, even with the competition as good as it is this year. I’ve read four of the shortlist (not the Castro or Hartnett) and each was a great read. But to do this fine piece with your first published book, every word singing, every character clear, the setting stunning, and so Australian, I think she could just take the big prize. And if not, well, no flies on Forster. It had me reading at 6 am, even after the Saturday Age fell onto the driveway I kept reading. It’s an absolute pearler, did I say that already?

    • Absolutely, Laila, she’s obviously a great talent, and I am just waiting to see what she writes next!

  19. Although Emmett was slightly worse than my father, this book brought back so much of my own childhood – hiding in the gully until we saw him drive to work the morning after a violent attack on my mother; hurrying Mum out a window to friends then making sure the little ones didn’t see the worst of the temper; – feeling the hatred; the fear; creeping in to see what mood he was in; – reading this book brought back the lump that was permanently felt in my stomach – the anger; the wish to die; the wish that someone would murder him; the self-loathing that I was not brave enough to do it myself. Surely, this author drew on personal history.

    • Hello Morag, thank you for joining in the conversation here at ANZ LitLovers, and thank you also for sharing your tragic experience as you have.
      While I know we should always be wary of assuming that the writer is the narrator, it did seem to me (although I haven’t had your sad experiences) that there was an an element of autobiography in this work… it seemed to be writing from the heart. I thought it was a great book and that she writes extraordinarily well about a very difficult subject. I do hope she is working on another novel.

  20. Morag, I am so sorry to hear of your experience. I weep for you as I have so many times for the characters in this book. I hope somehow reading it was validating and therapeutic for you. What I loved about this book was being reminded of what it is like to be a child. The pleasures, the habits, the acceptance of the world as it is presented to us in the only way we can know, the vulnerability, resourcefulness, and often powerlessness. I also liked the way she captured the purity of maternal love. I think our society has a long way to go in empowering children in many different ways and I like to think this book furthers that cause.

    • Hello Kelly, and welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers. I agree, Forster has captured the child’s perspective with great authenticity, and that’s a very difficult thing to do.
      It’s interesting what you say about maternal love…when we talked about this book in our bookgroup, one of the topics that came up was the culpability of a mother who allows this type of male behaviour to go on happening and damaging the children. Some of us found it hard not to blame her even though we understood that domestic violence often disempowers women so that they are more afraid to leave than they are to stay. It’s a very difficult issue, one that needs much more community support and funding.

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