Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 19, 2021

Where the Line Breaks, by Michael Burrows

Shortlisted for the Fogarty Literary Award and picked up for publication by Fremantle Press, Where the Line Breaks is an utterly absorbing novel by debut author Michael Burrows.

(Supported by the Fogarty Foundation, the newly established Fogarty Literary Award is a biennial prize awarded to an unpublished manuscript by a Western Australian author aged between 18 and 35 for a work of fiction, narrative non-fiction or young adult fiction.   The inaugural award in 2019 uncovered a number of engaging manuscripts and Fremantle Press offered publishing contracts to three additional authors: Michael Burrows for Where the Line Breaks, Emma Young for The Last Bookshop and Mel Hall for The Little Boat on Trusting Lane. The winner was The History of Mischief by Rebecca Higgie which is a YA novel.)

The design of the Where the Line Breaks is intriguing from the very start.  It begins with two quotations, one from CJ Dennis (War aint no giddy garden feete) and the other from a poem called ‘Out Back’ by The Unknown Digger, (Hell, I’ve taken all the Turk can throw at me). 

Then there’s a short sequence, beginning Always the same dream.  It recounts the horror of line after line of men stepping up and over the trench, men he joked and drank and swore and dreamed with.  

And then, signalled by a change in page colour from off-white to grey, there’s the cover page of a PhD dissertation. That’s followed by the Abstract, setting out the PhD author’s thesis, a Table of Contents, and an Introduction, with footnotes…

Ignore those footnotes at your peril.  The bemused reader thinks she has stumbled into a PhD, until footnote 5, referencing a book called The Anzac Legend by Brian Bishop (which turns out not to exist) but continuing with…

In year three I dressed up as Alan Lewis for Book Week, arguing that there were enough books about him in the library to justify my choice.  I wore my grandad’s medals, and spent the day picking up litter on the playground and telling kids off for not wearing their hats, because ‘it was the right thing to do.’ (p.18)

The author is having a laugh, right? What’s this childhood memory doing in a PhD thesis?

As in The Weaver Fish by fellow WA author Robert Edison, the footnotes are part of the narrative.  There are in fact three narratives:

  • printed on grey paper, the thesis of PhD candidate Matt Denton in London, which argues that he has identified The Unknown Digger, his hero — the Australian war poet who belongs in the canon of WW1 Soldier poets like Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke;
  • printed on white paper in a different font, the story of Lieutenant Alan Lewis, decorated for bravery (the soldier claimed by Matt to be the poet); and
  • within the footnotes, the story of Matt’s life unravelling as he tries to model his behaviour on his hero, but falls short of the ideal, just as Lewis is revealed to do too.

This unconventional narrative interrogates the mythmaking that surrounds the Anzac Legend.  Matt, for all his academic pretensions, is as dogged in his belief about unalloyed heroism as any flag-waving young ‘patriot’ taking Anzac Day hostage for patriotism.

But there’s a naïve charm about young Matt and his obsession with Lewis.  His ambition is for his hero, and he wants recognition not just for him but for Australian poetry.  (Mind you, while I have no idea about what passes for academic discourse about poetry these days, it does seem to me that Matt’s idea of magnificent poetry, as espoused in his thesis, is not quite the same as mine.) And, just as his hero is leading his girl/s up the garden path, Matt is being betrayed by his girl, and by the academic for whom he works.  It’s hard not to feel rather sorry for him when in her personal life he tries so hard to be the kind of young man that modern feminist discourse demands.  He wants to respect her autonomy when he thinks she’s been assaulted, but he also wants to man up and confront her abuser.  He’s read the cues all wrong and misread the situation completely.

And in his intellectual life, Matt can’t quite take the step of recognising that his hero has not only betrayed his men and failed every leadership test he faces, he’s also lied about it and blamed his mates.  It’s a measure of how well this book is constructed that the reader brakes hard when this scene is revealed, and scampers back over the previous pages because it seems as if it can’t be true.  These competing narratives force difficult questions that make uneasy reading in the light of current investigations into the behaviour of Australian soldiers valorised for their work in Afghanistan.

Highly recommended if you like books that make you think.

The novel is also reviewed at Westerly and at The AU Review, and there’s an illuminating interview at Amanda Curtin’s blog ‘Looking Up Looking Down‘.

Author: Michael Burrows
Title: Where the Line Breaks
Design by Nada Backovich
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2020
ISBN: 9781925816341, pbk., 218 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press

 


Responses

  1. Oooh, I like the sound of this one! Have to investigate just how easy it is to get hold of it over here in the UK.

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    • He lives in London, so maybe he’s got arrangements in place for sales there?

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      • It’s available in Kindle for about £2 because I bought it a week or so ago!

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        • Great, thanks for that info, Kim!

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      • I found it – will be out in July.

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  2. Wow, sounds absolutely fascinating – what a clever construction!!

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    • I went to my library’s Book Chatters last night and told them what I’d been reading and they’re going to buy a copy!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That does sound interesting! Like Marina, I saw that it will be out in paper on July1 so I have it marked.

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    • I’d love to know what you think of it, especially the parts where the PhD candidate analyses the unknown poet’s poetry, because I can’t tell with poetry whether the author is taking the mickey or not.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. New WA author vs more bloody WWI. I’m not sure which way to fall.

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    • Yes, well, many of us are suffering from WW1 fatigue. I don’t know whether you would like this one or not, but if you don’t it won’t be because of the WW1 element.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I am intrigued. I will add this to my list. Thank you, Lisa.

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    • At first, it’s a bizarre reading experience, especially if like me you usually ignore the footnotes. But then it settles into a rhythm, I found myself reading 2-3 pages of the ‘PhD’ then reading the footnotes, and it just seemed to happen naturally. Towards the middle I became more absorbed by what was happening to Matt, and I think this probably mirrored the experience of someone who was utterly absorbed by his PhD and then found life was overtaking him and he needed to attend to that.
      It’s so very clever!

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