4 March 2019
The Dunbars are “a family of ramshackle tragedy”. Writing on the typewriter he digs up from his grandmother’s garden, oldest brother Matthew tells the story of his brothers Rory, Henry, Clay, and Tommy. Twenty-year-old Matthew is “the responsible one: The long-standing breadwinner”. Eighteen-year-old Rory is “the invincible one: The human ball and chain”. Seventeen-year-old Henry is “the moneymaker, the friendly one”. Sixteen-year-old Clay is “the quiet one, or the smiler”. And thirteen-year-old Tommy is the youngest, the pet collector”, whose pets – including a mule name Achilles - are named for the characters of Greek mythology who inhabit the tales their mother grew up with. But this is, essentially, Clay’s story: “We were all of us changed through him.” After an absence of eight years following their mother’s death, the boys’ father Michael comes back and asks his sons to help him build a bridge on his rural property. Clay is the only to take him up on his offer, and when he leaves to go with him, his brothers see it as a betrayal, and Matthew tells him not to come back. But Clay’s actions will eventually bring them all back together.
Our narrator Matthew writes cryptically, dropping hints of what is to come and interweaving stories from the past and the present, so that we have to work hard to put the pieces together and come up with the story as a whole. This turns what is, in essence, a simple family story into a literary masterpiece. We learn about the boys’ mother Penelope, how she came to leave them, and the part Homer and the piano played in both her life and her death. We learn about their father, his mother Adelle who originally owned the typewriter, his first love Abbey, and how he came to be known as “the murderer”. We find out how Penelope and Michael meet and how, while being opposites, they were a perfect match for each other. Books played a major part in both their lives and the lives of their children. For Penelope, there were Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, from which Tommy named his pets. For Michael, there was The Quarryman, the biography of Michelangelo Buonarotti, which became Clay’s favorite and with which he wooed Carey. In addition to the books, certain objects keep making an appearance: Adelle’s typewriter, Penelope’s piano, Penelope and Michael’s marital bed, Clay’s peg, and Achilles the mule. And I love this recurring line: “… it was strange to think, but he’d marry that girl one day.”
In his narrative, Matthew speaks directly to us, like he is recounting random memories:
“… here I am, in the kitchen, in the night—the old river mouth of light—and I’m punching and punching away.”
“And what else? What else was there, as we skip the years like stones? Did I mention how …”
“As it was, it started with me, in sixth grade, and now, as I type, I’m guilty; I apologize. This, after all, is Clay’s story, and now I write for myself.”
“Even now, as I punch what happened out …”
“There’s one more story I can tell you now, before I can leave you in peace.”
The book is beautifully formatted, with parts made to look like they were actually written with a typewriter. Each section contains one more element, building upon those in the previous sections and revealing a little bit more each time. The author interweaves four romances (three tragic and one happy) and writes in rich metaphors, the most obvious of which is the bridge bringing Michael back to his boys. Even though the language the author uses is simple, the construction and content are complex. He masterfully captures the Aussie vernacular and the Aussie spirit, and he has the ability to evoke images with a few sparse words:
“I remember how once it rained a whole fortnight, in summer, and we came home deep-fried in mud.”
“There was rain like a ghost you could walk through. Almost dry when it hit the ground.”
The book is full of touching moments described so matter-of-factly:
“They’d brought her in the metronome, and it was one of the boys who said it. I think his name was Carlos. ‘Breathe in time with this, Miss.’”
“… the woman inside was weightless. The coffin weighed a ton. She was a feather wrapped up in a chopping block.”
“She was famous for winning a Group One race, and dying the very next day—and Clay was the one to blame.”
“He was a great horse,” she went on, “and the perfect story—we wouldn’t love him so much if he’d lived.”
“She would never see us grow up. Just cry and silently cry.”
And, once again, as in "The Book Thief", Death makes an appearance as a character:
“She’d started leaving us that morning, and death was moving in: He was perched there on a curtain rod. Dangling in the sun. Later, he was leaning, close but casual, an arm draped over the fridge; if he was minding the beer he was doing a bloody good job.”
“It was in there, out there, waiting. It lived on our front porch.”
Beautiful, poignant, memorable.
Warnings: coarse language, sexual references, violence.