Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 5, 2011

How It Feels (2010), by Brendan Cowell

How it FeelsMy goodness, How It Feels is a wild ride, one to make parents sweat with anxiety throughout the entire adolescence of their offspring!  You’ll need a high tolerance for a lot of filthy language and repellent behaviour if you’re going to read it.

I came across it at the library and took it home because How It Feels was shortlisted for the ABIA Literary Fiction Book of the Year, which now makes me wonder what their criteria were.  Presumably it has merits which ABIA find superior to other novels in contention for the award.   Presumably there is an adequate market for this type of book or Pan MacMillan wouldn’t have published it either. I suspect that it’s being touted as ‘authentic’ but  I sincerely hope that this brutalism is not an authentic slice of Australian life in too many places…

For what it’s worth, it’s the story of  teenage narrator Neil Cronk who doesn’t quite fit into the rude, crude and unattractive world of Cronulla youth but manages to join in most of their repellent activities all the same.  The first third of the book is the least alienating because the boy is struggling to develop a male identity in a macho world that consists entirely of drugs, sex, booze, crime and violence.   The reader feels a faint twinge of hope when Cronk sets off for regional Australia to study drama.

It seems like a cliché to discover that he very soon becomes, as we say in Australia, ‘up himself’.  There’s a bit of twaddle about the kind of drama he produces

‘kind of performance art but not horrible like a chick chained to a wall screaming for hours, more physical theatre and mostly devised, but with some multimedia elements, but then kind of flipping that very notion on its head in a postmodern, kind of anti-theatre context’ (p311)

but it was never clear to me whether he really was successful in London or whether he merely thought he was. I find it hard to believe that someone so unempathetic could be any good in theatre.  He is a truly pitiful human being, hopeless in all his relationships both male and female.

The trouble is, that as Cronk’s drug-taking becomes more and more intemperate, it’s increasingly difficult to follow the narration.  What with the torrent of foul language and the incoherent rantings, the harangues about Cronk’s obsession with the girl Courtney and his repellent discourse with the other people in his life, not to mention the nasty, sordid and brutish sex scenes, it all begins to blur into the sort of noise one would rather block out of one’s life.   I continued reading it only out of a sense of mild curiosity about whether Cowell could offer some kind of redemption for his horrible characters and because I hoped to eventually discern the merits which led to its shortlisting.  I remain bemused, and more than a little dismayed at the ugly direction which some of our fiction is taking.

Theo Chapman reviewed it at the SMH and so did Sean Gleeson at Readings but Mel Campbell’s comes closest to how I feel about the book. Angela Meyer at Literary Minded didn’t like it either.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Brendan Cowell
Title: How It Feels
Publisher: Picador (Pan MacMillan) 2010
ISBN: 9781405039291
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library

Fishpond: How it Feels


  1. Did you ever read Andrew McGahan’s Praise? Because it sounds kind of similar to the book you’ve reviewed here. I read it years ago and found it quite repellent — filled with drug use & ugly sex. I’m no prude but when you read stuff that just seems gratuitous you wonder what the point of it is…


    • No, Kim, I haven’t read that one, and am unlikely to. I’m not a prude either, but honestly, I felt as if I were mired in filth sometimes, and questioned why I was going on with reading it.
      But as you say, the real question is, why write this kind of stuff? Writers write what they must, I suppose, but what is it that makes a writer want to spend months and years in this kind of ugliness, with no wit or wisdom to alleviate it?


  2. I haven’t read this book but have come across one or two in a similar vein. I tend to think that some writers try to imitate “grunge” literature and just miss the mark.
    Unfortunately, it is the shock factor that can make a novel stand out in the crowd and get people talking.
    Do you think this might have been in the minds of the ABIA judges?


    • Karen, the ABIA awards do have a slightly different agenda to the other awards I’m familiar with – and that is that the book is usually one that is going to have good sales. There is a sort of grunge culture out there, one that celebrates sluttiness as not as a pejorative but as an aspect of female independence and binge drinking and drug-taking not as self-harm but as a bonding activity. Perhaps the judges thought that (like The Slap) notoriety and controversy make a book noteworthy?
      I’d hate it if OzLit came to be known overseas for this kind of stuff…


  3. I found this a very difficult book to like, but it definitely made me feel something – which, given its title, is what I presume Cowell was aiming to achieve. In many ways I found it abhorrent. But I could never quite decide whether the very fact I was having such a strong reaction to it was because I didn’t like it – some of the writing is very loose and flat – or because it was such an accurate depiction of abhorrent behaviour. It was a life and character I didn’t want to read about, and didn’t enjoy, but it sure made me feel something – angry, scared, distraught…and gave me a raw understanding of what it can be like to grow up male in Australia.


    • Good point, Melanie, but oh dear, I’m very glad that none of the men of this generation that I know are like the ones in this book. I think it’s tragic that anybody might live a life like this…


  4. […] It’s Collis’s experience in teaching Indigenous men in custody that informs this novel.  The UQP website tells me that he has taught Aboriginal Studies to Indigenous inmates at the Worimi and Mount Penang juvenile detention centres and in Cessnock and Maitland prisons. I’ll be honest: it took me two attempts to complete reading this novel because I turned away: I don’t care for noir of any kind if it involves unrelenting violence, brutality, and lashings of coarse language and racist name-calling along with the objectification of women.  And Dancing Home  has all of that in spades because (according to the author profile at Canberra university) part of the author’s agenda is to explore Indigenous masculinity.  The last time I read a book as unpleasant as this was How It Feels by Brendan Cowell… […]


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