Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 16, 2011

Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer

Miles Franklin c1940 (Source: Wikipedia)

This book is going to be a very good choice for book group discussion! Rocks in the Belly is Jon Bauer’s first novel, and it raises all kinds of issues to test the passions of its readers…

Years ago I read Gillian Slovo’s memoir Every Secret Thing: My Family, My Country in which she explored the guilt-ridden resentment she felt about her parents’ participation in the campaign to abolish apartheid in South Africa.  Her father, Joe Slovo, and mother, Ruth First were involved in the armed resistance which led to exile,  occasional imprisonment and eventually Ruth First’s murder by the South African security forces.  Even as a young child Gillian Slovo understood the importance of the work they did, but – as any young child might – she wanted to come first with her parents and as an adult had to come to terms with the fact that they sacrificed home and family life in the service of a great cause.

Georgia Blain, in Candelo, covers slightly different territory.  There were autobiographical elements throughout the novel, which focuses on the dilemma of parental activism and its impact on family and children.  The daughter of  activist, author and broadcaster Anne Deveson, Blain shows the damage done by a mother’s perpetual involvement in morally uplifting causes, because it makes her blind to the deteriorating domestic situation around her.

Jon Bauer tackles the topic from the dual viewpoint of an eight-year-old child and the vindictive adult he becomes.  His mother has an obsessive need to foster other children, all boys, and she persists with this despite the obvious damage it is doing to her own child.  I anticipate that book groups will argue about whether these parents should have persisted with the fostering;  they’re going to explore the event that triggers Mary’s obsession in forensic detail; and they’re going to analyse the parenting styles of the boy’s mother and father and how they undercut each other.

Of interest to any of us who work with children is Bauer’s characterisation of the child.  He is eight, below the age at which the law says a child can be held responsible for his actions.  Most of us want to believe that when children do wrong it is because they are impulsive or are expressing feelings that they do not have the maturity to manage, but Bauer’s boy seems to know what he is doing.  He is pathologically jealous of the passing parade of foster children and he takes his anger out in acts of vandalism, in destructive behaviour, in dreadful cruelty to the cat Alfie and to the foster children especially Robert, and in acts of self-harm as well.  To what extent is he responsible for the evil that he does as a child?

It’s not easy either to come to judgement about his actions as an adult either.   When he comes back to Australia from Canada, his mother is dying of cancer.  Over and over again he rejoices in his dominance over her and exploits her vulnerability.  To what extent is this the cry of a damaged man?  Does any of what happened in his childhood vindicate his behaviour?

None of this is easy reading, but it’s very worthwhile.  The narrative voice is utterly convincing, and the plot is structured to reveal events in a way that makes the book difficult to put down.  Bauer is definitely a welcome addition to 21st century Australian writing…

The ANZ LitLovers group has scheduled this novel for reading in March and I predict that there will be lively discussion about it!

There’s a thoughtful review at Good Reads but although there is one in the October Australian Book Review  I couldn’t find others of any substance online.

Update 15.3.2011
There are beginning to be some interesting reviews at Good Reads, (many of them rating it 4 or 5 stars) and Kevin from Canada has a written about the unique perspective that a child-narrator can bring to a text.  It’s worthwhile visiting his blog to see what he has to say in context, but of particular relevance to Rocks in the Belly is this:

The young central character is not constrained by established social ideas of preference, bias, convention or prejudice — but is starting to discover all of them…[which] opens the door for easily developed commentary on “adult” issues.  

So here’s a question for the book group: Are both narrators childish??

Author: Jon Bauer
Title: Rocks in the Belly
Publisher: Scribe, 2010
ISBN:  9781921640674
Source: Review copy courtesy of Scribe Publications

Jon Bauer blogs at JonBauerWriter.


Responses

  1. This would provoke heated discussion in our group as well, especially as most of us are either teachers or doctors. Would I be brave enough to pick it for my next choice? Perhaps I’ll wait and see how your group get on with it.

    • I’d be interested to know if you could get copies of it in the UK, Annie. The book has no distinctive setting in the sense that it could take place as easily in the UK as in Australia – and when one of the thoughts it triggered for me was the issue of child accountability for behaviour, I couldn’t help but think of the James Bulger case and how Venables and Thompson were dealt with.

      • You were right to be dubious, Lisa. I’ve just checked with Amazon and it isn’t available. At least that saves me the dilemma of to choose or not to choose. And yes, the Bulger case was in my mind as well.

        • I’ll contact Scribe and find out if there are any plans to release it overseas…
          PS 19 Jan. I’ve been in touch with Scribe and they sau that they “only hold the Australian and New Zealand rights to Rocks in the Belly. It will only appear on Amazon UK or US if Jon’s agent sells the rights to those territories. So at this stage, you can only purchase the Australian Scribe edition through an Australian website like Readings or Booktopia”.
          PPS 21 Jan. But now see the update re availability at the bottom of the review.

  2. I read this book around Christmas time and was impressed. I was surprised by the ending. It certainly would create a lively discussion in a book group.

    Meg

    • Yes, Meg, that perennial issue of redemption! One of the reviews I read wasn’t keen on the ending, but I thought it would have been a bleak book without it…

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Scribe Publications, Lisa Hill. Lisa Hill said: An impressive new voice in Australian literary fiction Rocks in the Belly, by Jon Bauer « ANZ LitLovers LitBlog http://tinyurl.com/4hnwn3q […]


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