A little while ago I had a minor whinge about my wish that debut authors would write about less predictable topics, about how it’s disappointing to see promising authors dredging up Relationships #101 and Dysfunctional Families #101 over and over again, as if there were nothing else to write about in Australia. So I was very pleased to come across debut author Jenny Ackland’s The Secret Son – because it’s ambitious in theme, scope and structure and very interesting to read as well.
There are two narratives, the turn-of-the-20th-century narrative of James, a farm boy of little initiative in Beechworth, and of Cem, a young man of Turkish descent who, despite his family’s misgivings, takes off from Australia for the village of his ancestors in the 1990s. These two narratives do intersect, but the novel takes its time to do that, creating a nice frisson of mystery to be resolved.
James’ narrative is well-written, with a slow gentle rhythm that matches this character’s ambivalent personality and also that peaceful lost era before the cataclysm of World War I. For James there is the puzzle of his vanished father’s identity and his mother’s reluctance to talk about it, exacerbated by the town’s diffidence towards them. When his mother dies and James finds out that the property for which he had plans is only rented, and that puts paid to his even more vague plans for a bride, he drifts into working at a newspaper printing room in Melbourne, and from there into enlistment. He ends up in the Dardanelles.
This characterisation made me wonder about how many other young men of vaguely pacifist intention might also have enlisted and managed to survive the war without actually killing anybody. James’s impulsive enlistment derives in part out of frustrated love for Linda Cole (real life daughter of E.W. Cole of Cole’s Book Arcade fame) and her obsession with flying. But James is also fascinated by the bees on his mother’s farm: he likes their orderliness, their industry and their hierarchical structure. Perhaps the army momentarily had something of the same appeal.
The back cover blurb reveals enough of the plot for me to be able also to disclose that this first section of the novel ends up with James heading for a Turkish village, gravely ill, rescued from the abandoned trenches of Gallipoli by a Turkish boy whose life he had earlier spared.
The next section, however, brings a change of pace, a change of locale and a change of era. Cem is also a diffident young man who has difficulty making decisions about his own future. Brought up in an extended migrant family from Turkey, he drifts into university but drifts out of getting a job afterwards. Curious about the family stories he has heard all his life, he decides to visit the village of their birth, despite strong objections from his irascible grandfather.
But raised on his grandfather’s myth-making, Cem soon finds that reality doesn’t match what he finds, and the culture clash is deftly handled. The exuberant characterisation of this section brings new momentum to the novel, and the dialogue is lively. The taxi driver who delivers a crash course in Turkish culture has an authentic style which derives, so the blurb tells me, from the author’s own love of the country and her connections there. (I haven’t been to Turkey yet, but it’s on my bucket list.)
This character Ibrahim is a lovable charmer:
‘My mother has very beauty heart.’ Ibrahim ate a stuffed vine leaf and reached for another. ‘But I very angry, with all these feelings. I sell wristling for ticket to Istanbul. I catch bus with little bit money in my pocket. All we men in this country has is big hopes with empty pocket. Some days I think for us to stay small, in our shit villages is better. This city, she making us too sad.’
Cem started to agree, but Harry interjected. ‘No.’ He was half standing, leaning over the table, the taxi-driver’s wrist caught in his hand. ‘You were right to follow your dreams. The first and most important thing a man must do is identify his quest. The second thing he has to do is complete it. You have succeeded already, don’t you see?’ Harry released the taxi-driver’s hand, sat down and held up his briefcase. ‘On the matter of dreams, all will be revealed.’
Ibrahim grabbed Harry around the neck and kissed him on the cheek.
‘Harray, I not understand your speaking, my friend, but you is clever man! I am believe you! We live in this crumbling city, we have black feeling in our hearts. Music makes it blacker, all the broken people around us, but still we are proud, and still there is honour.
He poured more raki into their glasses. (p.103)
This Harry, on the other hand, is a pain in the neck. Cem is a nice, friendly young man, and en route and against his better judgement he gets saddled with Harry, an academic who is obsessed by his theory that Ned Kelly (yes, the bushranger) had a son who went to war and didn’t return. Harry is, to put it mildly, a crashing bore. He talks too much, and he has endless problems with back pain. Cem is not best pleased when he discovers that he’s heading for the same village that Harry needs to visit, to research his bizarre theory. And since Harry speaks not a word of Turkish, Cem is expected to translate for him…
Now, as it happens, I am concurrently reading Zola’s La Bête Humaine (The Beast in Man), a novel which explores the idea that the base instincts of men can be passed on in families. Ackland’s novel places Cem in the invidious position of being held to account for actions taken long ago by his relations. The Ned Kelly motif allows some discussion about tainted blood and how ‘debts’ might be repaid in atonement. These are interesting ideas to think about in the contemporary calls for apologies for past wrongs.
The dual narratives work well for the most part, but it is a complex plot requiring close attention by the reader throughout, especially when it comes to working out the relationships across time and place. As is sometimes the case with debut novels, there are occasional elements to the plot which seem unnecessary, and here and there I noticed expressions that seemed a little incongruous, which could have been dealt with by more astute editing. I have never before come across snuck (as a replacement for sneaked) in the written past tense, and I was baffled by this use of shrug as a description of a person:
At the beginning of 1990, Cem was twenty-three and a kind of shrug. He was one of the sugar men, but his sweetness was diluted in Melbourne.
The reader finds out eventually what this reference to sugar is about, but shrug remains a mystery. Perhaps it is a metaphor for Cem’s inability to explain himself because he often doesn’t know what he thinks, but the text takes a while for that aspect of his characterisation to become clear. It’s not until five pages later that this passage begins to reveal his ambivalence, and even then there’s no reference to him shrugging his shoulders:
Cem lengthened as he grew and began to lope when he walked, hands in pockets, chin dropped to the ground. He didn’t look people in the eye because inside all of his stretched new form, he hadn’t even begun to reach his own edges, and he was unsure about everything. He was on the verge of something, but he wouldn’t have been able to say what. His family, though, never tired of telling him what kind of person he was. (p.78)
I think most readers will enjoy the settings, the mystery and above all the lively characterisation in The Secret Son. It’s more than a coming-of-age novel, as its allusion to the ‘guilt’ of post-Holocaust Germans implies. This story lays bare the bewilderment of someone held to account for the sins of the previous generation, coupled with the pain of those who’ve been wounded and long for acknowledgement and restitution.
There’s also a review at Readings.
Author: Jenny Ackland
Title: The Secret Son
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2015
Review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Fishpond: The Secret Son and all good bookstores.