Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 30, 2012

Watch Out for Me (2011), by Sylvia Johnson

Well, there I was telling you that I hardly ever read thrillers, and here’s the second one I’ve read within a week.

Maybe, if they were all as good as this one, I’d read more of them.

Most so-called thrillers are so overt in the way that they manipulate the reader, they bore me to tears.

But Watch Out for Me is  way better than that.   Richard Flanagan (The Unknown Terrorist) and Sandy McCutcheon (The Haha Man) both used the thriller genre to tackle the issue of global panic and public hysteria about terrorism – and both left me cold even though I mostly agreed with the proposition they were using fiction to assert.  The reason that Watch Out for Me works is because the characters and the situation are so ordinary they are convincing.  All of us know people who are like these characters, and the events that are used to construct the plot are authentic.  It’s not overwritten, it’s not melodramatic, and the tension builds in a careful sustained way.

A baby goes missing and four children tell a lie to get out of trouble without realising that their lie casts suspicion on an innocent man.  He’s an outsider, a foreigner, in the 1960s when monocultural Australia was reluctantly being redefined, and that’s enough for Mrs Monckton and her ilk.  That’s enough for a gang of kids raised in the free-and-easy sixties to start a chain of events that no one could foresee.

As with Ian McEwan’s Atonement guilt follows them into adult life though the form it takes is different for each one. In adulthood, Hannah in Sydney is a pugnacious lush who believes that none of the rules apply to her.  She chafes under security restrictions during the visit of an American President but her art not only betrays the guilt she feels but is also the catalyst for events to spiral out of control.  Her  arrogance is utterly convincing because she has no idea that elsewhere her complacency is regarded as naïveté. Confronted with armed and implacable US security services, she bleats about her rights without realising that she’s lost them along with the innocence of her childhood.

Richard in Rome still yearns to be the inspiring leader that he was as a child, lecturing Hannah about being kind to their cousin in atonement.   Lizzie, assuaging her guilt in a Moroccan NGO, gets caught up in an anti-Western riot and must confront the cowardice that’s bedevilled her all her life.  Toby, the youngest, back in Sydney from good works in Cambodia, is just as needy as ever he was.

These elements come together in short fragments.  Hannah’s story is told in savage bursts of first-person narration that alternate between remorse,  irritation and self-justification.  The others are all told from a third person POV.  The settings are well done: the long lazy days of an Australian summer in 1967 are redolent of sun and sand, forming a backdrop for the secret spaces of childhood.  Morocco by contrast is claustrophobic: the tourists are trapped in a hotel where danger besets them from within and without.  Richard is elusive but ever-present, a  voice on the phone that forms a meme in the consciousness of the others.  Sydney under lockdown with barbed wire and armed gunmen and the ruins of old military emplacements is nothing like the Sydney of tourism brochures.

I picked this book up at the library out of idle curiosity.  Sylvia had commented on my blog and when I visited hers I discovered she was an author.  I took the book with me to a doctor’s waiting room, and spent the rest of the afternoon unable to put it down.  I’m not surprised that the library ticket says it’s in high demand….

Author: Sylvia Johnson
Title: Watch Out for Me
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2011
ISBN: 9781742376707
Source: Kingston Library

Fishpond: Watch Out for Me

Or direct from Allen and Unwin.


  1. This sounds so good I’ve immediately requested it from the library. I have a similar reaction to thrillers as you do so I also tend not to read them. Thanks for your review.


    • Oh, I hope you like it then:)
      Are you on GoodReads?


      • I’m on LibraryThing –


        • I’m a lifetime member there, but I find it too clunky for conversation so I play at GoodReads these days.
          Uh oh, that reminds me, I think I said I’d join in something there this year …
          *searches memory without success*


          • LOL Lisa … I sort of joined Good Reads too at various people’s encouragement but I really don’t have time to engage in any more conversations than I do so I tend to stick mostly to my inventory at Library Thing and converse via blogs. I admire your capacity to maintain multiple conversation venues.


  2. Your reviews are such a great source of inspiration for my Australian Women Writers challenge – this is another one I’ll definitely add to my list.


  3. The bottom line is, good writing will out, I think. Like you, Lisa, as you know, I don’t read much in the way of “genre” either but when I do, because it’s been recommended, I tend to enjoy it. It’s the formula I don’t like, and the long series of books, but good writing in a single book, well … all one has to do is find the time for all the books in all the genres and forms one would like to check out!


    • Well, this was one I stumbled across. I usually check out the URL of new people who comment if they have a blog, and Sylvia’s is an interesting blog because she’s an Aussie on sojourn in regional France. (Lovely pictures, droolsome stories about making pickles, I’ve been reading it for a while, partly out of envy LOL, I’ve loved my short stays in the Loire, Bordeaux and Avignon).
      Anyway. she’d done a post about the progress she was making with her new novel, making a wry comment about it was a return to literary fiction even though she knew that choice translated into poor sales. So I wanted to see what kind of writing she’d done …
      That’s how I discovered Karenlee Thompson, Annabel Smith, and Amanda Curtin, all terrific Aussie authors and now definitely part of my stable of authors to keep an eye on. A good blog that showcases quality writing will attract my interest every time.


      • Ah yes, I saw her blog via yours … But I am so torn between chasing more things to read and reading what I have. It’s good though to support new writers … I’m reading a couple too, one of whom, Catherine Macnamara is switching between commercial and literary fiction.


        • *chuckle* Ah yes, me too. I try very hard to stick to my own reading agenda and not get sidetracked or pressured into other things that take me away from it.


          • It’s a challenge … Can you please fix my comment? The silly iPad gets stuck when I reply via notifications and refuses to let me fix something mid paragraph once I’ve typed on.


            • Sure, but what’s wrong with it?


              • Oh I can see how you might miss it – “Catharine Macnamris” should be “Catherine Macnamara, is” …


  4. […] Storyteller of Marrakesh by Indian author Joydeep Roy-Battacharya; and two by Australian authors: Watch Out for Me by Sylvia Johnson, and Closer to Stone by Simon Cleary.  Maybe it was because I thought it was […]


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