Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 20, 2013

Harmless (2013), by Julienne Van Loon

HarmlessJulienne Van Loon is an author with a taste for grim topics.  Her first, Vogel Award-winning novella, Road Story, followed the ever-downward trajectory of her character Diana who runs away from a car crash caused when her drug-addicted passenger falls across her body.  I didn’t read Beneath the Bloodwood Tree but Peter Pierce in the ABR found it ‘faithful to the essential spirit of Australia – to its abiding nihilism’.  Now there is Harmless, Van Loon’s third book, piecing together the lives of a dysfunctional family and once again leaving the question of redemption unanswered.

There is a stark relentlessness to the plot.  The story begins with eight-year-old Amanda on her way to visit her father in prison.  She is accompanied by Rattuwat, who has beggared himself to come from Thailand to bury his daughter Sua.  At Amanda’s insistence that she knows the way, they have abandoned the broken-down car to travel cross-country, but the heat is remorseless and Rattuwat is too old and frail to keep up.  Van Loon draws on the mythology of the Lost Child in the Australian bush* to sustain her readers’ interest from the start.

But Amanda is lost in more ways than one.  Her father is in prison for a long time and (improbably) authorities seem not to have made provision for her welfare.  This meeting at the prison is Dave’s attempt to salvage some sort of family for her.  But she is not a nice child: she is ‘impatient and rude’.  She does not have the respect for elders that Rattuwat is used to in his culture.  She and her older brother Ant did not make him welcome when he arrived at their shabby house on Perth’s outer urban fringe; she uses filthy language; she vandalises precious orchids out of idle curiosity when she knows she should not.  Yet a reader’s judgement must be withheld: there is Amanda’s tender age, and there are the truly shocking images of both her birth mother and her surrogate mother abandoning her in their different ways.

The Buddhist Rattuwat’s painful self-reflections make an interesting contrast with Dave’s.  Rattuwat thinks he has been a bad father, failing to protect his children, especially Sua.  But Dave, in gaol for armed robbery, thinks he is a good man.   The mystery of his motive provides some of the tension in the plot, and when it is revealed, issues are more complex than might at first have been assumed.  Mindful of a neighbour whose mental health was destroyed when she was held up at gunpoint in a bank, I found it hard to withhold judgement about this character.  Other readers might feel differently.

This novella is only 137 pages long and takes only an hour or two to read.  But the picture that emerges of the dregs of Australian society is piercing.  Van Loon’s prose is taut and compelling, and shows the author in full command of her powers.

* I’d love to read Peter Pierce’s book The Country of Lost Children, An Australian Anxiety ISBN: 9780521594998, but I haven’t found a copy of it yet…

Author: Julienne Van Loon
Title: Harmless
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2013
ISBN: 9781922089045
Source: Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press


Fishpond: Harmless
Or direct from Fremantle Press


  1. Thanks for the link Lisa .. you did well to remember that post of mine from so long ago. I feel in fact another “bush” post coming on, from some other things I’ve read recently. It’s interesting to see that the issue of the bush/fear of the bush still plays out in our literature.


  2. It’s good to see that Julienne Van Loon has a new book out. I reviewed ‘Beneath the Bloodwood’ Tree some years back, and was impressed by it. And Fremantle Press continues to do good things. I recently reviewed Iris Lavell’s debut novel, ‘Elsewhere in Success’. That’s very impressive too. These are authors who make their way without the hype attendant on big publishing houses, and big names, and are more deserving of attention because of it, I think.


    • Hi Dorothy, good to hear from you:)
      Have you got a link to your review of Benealth the Bloodwood Tree that I can refer readers to? I’m not sure how I came to miss that one when it was released, but I guess it’s not easy to keep up with everything. Even when I have the book on the shelves I don’t always get round to reading it for ages. There’s just not enough hours in the day…
      I agree about the smaller presses – they prove that it’s not the size of the company that counts, it’s how good their editors are at spotting and nurturing their authors, and I do my best to support them.


  3. No link to the review – sorry – it’s a few years back now. I’m amazed that you manage to read as much as you do…


  4. […] ‘Moving and thought-provoking. An outstanding  novel of originality and psychological depth.’ Julienne van Loon, award-winning author of Road Story and Harmless. […]


  5. I like it and it reminded me of Beside the Sea.

    I feel more empathy for Dave than you, maybe because I’ve read No Beast So Fierce by Edward Bunker and I think it’s not so easy to stay on the right path without a strong support system. If you don’t change of scenery, your past keeps dragging you down.


    • Oh, Emma, Beside the Sea was such an unforgettable book!
      It’s not that I don’t have understanding for Dave, it’s just that I have so much more for the victims, who like my neighbour, suffer torment for years and years and are forgotten about.
      But you are right, as a society, we spend all that money and time judging and then punishing people, but we don’t invest in rehabilitation.


      • I think Beside the Sea really stayed with everyone who’s read it.

        I don’t forget the victims either and their suffering is often forgotten, as you say.
        I don’t know if any country has really found a way to ensure a good rehabilitation of prisoners. No Beast so Fierce wasn’t nice for the US authorities and On Parole by Yoshimura wasn’t hopeful either.


        • It’s curious, isn’t it? It’s as if we give up, or our wish for vengeance makes us want to prove that the criminal is irretrievably bad so he doesn’t deserve any help. It’s crazy…


  6. […] Thanks to Lisa for recommending this novella. Her review can be found here. […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: