I’m not sure about the choice of cover art for Annabel Smith’s superb new novel: it doesn’t seem quite apt to me. Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is a wise and compassionate exploration of sibling rivalry and the damage it can do, and while there are comic elements in the novel, it takes the reader on an emotional roller-coaster ride that brought me to the brink of tears at times.
Charlie and ‘Whisky’ are identical twins, but we never learn Whisky’s point-of-view because he’s in a coma after a freak accident. The young men’s relationship has been fraught for many years and the accident forces an intense period of reflection for Charlie, who has to confront the unpalatable truth that he may have left it too late ever to reconcile with his once-loved brother. Set in Melbourne, the story is structured so that it shifts between the seesaw of hope and fear in the present and the disconcerting revelations of a shared past: Charlie and his family have to come to terms with what has happened and the prospect that Whisky may never recover, and Charlie has to revisit the past to deal with his resentment and jealousy. The boys’ use of the two-way alphabet as a way of communicating in childhood is both motif and a framework for the chapters, and the third letter in the title is an inspired choice (which I didn’t fully appreciate until the end of the story).
Annabel Smith is a gifted writer; I discovered that when I read A New Map of the Universe.) (See my review where I wrote that her writing is ‘exquisite, seductive and powerful’). Once again I did not want to come to the end of the novel but was captivated. I read on till far too late at night, and in the last chapters I was torn between being too anguished not to read on, and being afraid to learn the fate of characters I had become fond of.
It must have been no small challenge to create a vivid character out of a bloke lying comatose in a hospital bed throughout the novel, but Whisky is as real as his ever-so-slightly younger brother. Whisky is the dynamic one, and the lucky one – successful with girls, jobs, and money. He has ‘the kind of car that everyone looks at’, he is an easy conversationalist, he has many friends and is great at sport. But Charlie has the moral high ground and he captures the heart of the beautiful Juliet because she finds Whisky shallow. The existential question that lies at the heart of the novel is Charlie’s exploration of Whisky’s character and his own. Who really bears responsibility when relationships fail, and can one, in a family, choose to disengage?
Rosa, Whisky’s wife who left everything she knew in Peru to take a chance on a whirlwind romance, thinks not:
You and Whisky are brothers, Charlie, she began. You are family, whether you like this or not. And your family is never going away. Always it is somebody’s birthday or somebody’s wedding, somebody is born or somebody dies and there they are, hanging around like a bad smell. Sooner or later you have to see them, even if you do not want to. That is how it is with families, in Peru, in Australia, it make no difference. (p. 135)
Charlie is a complex character and what I loved about this novel was the way that it invites the reader to join in his voyage of self discovery. All we see is his point-of-view, filtering his interactions with the rest of his family and his friends. Gradually it dawns on us – as it dawns on him – that his low self-esteem isn’t because Whisky sucks up all the air. For Charlie, anything difficult belongs in a box marked ‘deal with this later’ and the ghastly situation with Whisky is not the only one that he may have left too late. He’s not straight with people because he fears confrontation, he’s stubborn and defensive, and the choices he makes about his career and his relationships have impacted on others as well. Blame, moral superiority and a habit of being judgemental about Whisky have made him downright mean in some ways.
Despite the faults of this flawed character, the reader becomes fond of him as he flounders about. Smith draws him with a compassionate pen so that when we fear that – on top of everything else – he is about to lose Juliet because of his own stupidity, we feel drawn into the crisis as if we were part of his family, desperately hoping that it will all work out. In this respect he’s like the ‘loser’ Stephen in Charlotte Wood’s Animal People – exasperating but likeable.
The characterisation of the other protagonists is deft and sure. The children are cute but not overdone, the hospital staff are caring but annoyingly cagey (as they must be), and the counsellors are wise without being uniformly perfect. Juliet is a terrific creation: she’s beautiful, privileged, courted by all the blokes she ever meets but she has forty pairs of shoes which take up a disproportionate share of the wardrobe, has weird obsessions about ‘rollerball pens with purple ink‘ and she also writes emails to herself on a website called ‘Future Me.‘ She also has:
.. unbearable PMT, for which she claimed the only cure was for Charlie to drive her across town to her favourite Thai restaurant in North Brunswick, a place with plastic chairs and tables, cutlery with a Lufthansa logo which must have been bought in a fire sale; a place with bad service and no ambience whatsoever but which happened to serve what Juliet described as the world’s greatest chicken satay. (p. 200).
Like many a young woman with a biological clock ticking and a young man who hesitates to commit even to keeping a dog, Juliet sets an ultimatum, and Charlie, handicapped by the fact that he doesn’t have a romantic bone in his body (or any money) is in deep trouble. As Thomas the hospital counsellor tells Charlie ‘If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this job, Charlie, it’s that life-threatening illness doesn’t only affect the patients themselves’ (p. 210) and this is another ‘coming-of-age’ novel exploring the 30-something male who is forced by circumstances to grow up at last!
Angela Meyer interviewed Annabel Smith about Whisky Charlie Foxtrot at Literary Minded.
Destined for shortlists all over the place, Whisky Charlie Foxtrot is perfect for book groups and you can find questions for discussion at Fremantle Press.
I will be launching Whisky Charlie Foxtrot (and meeting Annabel for the first time!) at Readings in St Kilda on Thursday November 15th.
Author: Annabel Smith
Title: Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, A Novel
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2012
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press