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
Source: Kingston Library