TL;DR – an elderly man and a young boy are neighbours connected by loneliness. Both their lives are victims of circumstance. Together they discover that they have more in common than they initially realise, but when the boy’s single mother starts a relationship with an abusive man, choices will be made that will shake the foundations of their friendship.
Summary (warning: spoilers)
An old man, who seems to have never caught a break, lives alone tending his garden and taking care of his chickens. He reminisces about a life filled with heartache and hardship. It all started when he was a little boy, and he was found standing over the crib of his dead baby sister. The events of his life that followed were forever scarred by that moment. Several decades on, and he now wishes to live the remaining years of his life in peace. But the kid next door is always causing such a racket.
Next door lives a young boy with his single mother. The boy loves his mother, and she loves him but has no desire to take care of him. She wants freedom of a single life, her love for her son conditional on him taking care of himself while she goes drinking and comes home with strange men. The boy feels lonely and sometimes watches the old man tottering next door, working in the yard and hen house.
One afternoon, due to an incident involving the boy stealing cigarettes, he hides in the hen house. The old man finds the boy but doesn’t give him up to the strange man (whose cigarettes the boy stole from). This leads to a tentative alliance between the pair that slowly grows into genuine friendship.
However, their bond becomes threatened when the boy’s mother starts seeing a man with a penchant for violence.
Cass Moriarty’s debut novel is an evocative, atmospheric drama set in Brisbane, Australia, that captures the innocence of youth and the frailty of age. Chapters alternate between the old man and the boy. Moriarty uses a clever, simple technique to give a distinct voice between her two main protagonists. She writes all the chapters about the old man in first person, and all the chapters about the boy in third person.
Her ability to capture the Australian slang and feel of the old man is spot on. A man that had his prime years during a time when computers were not common place and newspapers were printed using metal letters that needed to be arranged in the right order before a print run. And she achieves the same level of depth and feeling when writing about the young boy next door.
The reflections of the old man’s history is relatable and emotionally moving. It’s a life that was hard but also had highlights and pleasures even if they didn’t last. His reflections influence his interactions with the young boy; he sees a lot of himself in the boy and begins to realise the hardships the boy is going through could lead to destructive behaviour. So, even though he thinks he is old enough to put his feet up and not have to get involved with anyone else’s business, the kindred spirit he feels for the boy causes him to go out on a limb and try to nurture the potential he sees. And in the process, the boy (in his own way) teaches the old man that he still has plenty of things to live for. Together they raise chicks, build a vegetable garden, and spend a glorious Christmas day together on the beach.
All of this is beautifully written. When the boy receives a bicycle as a birthday present from his mum, I was taken back to when I was a child and received my first bike also. His excitement and the places he rides off to reminding me of my own childhood and those simple thrills and joys. Moriarty is exemplary in her ability to capture both young and old souls.
The tensions and inciting incidents that are introduced by the story’s antagonists come in the form of the boy’s mother and her bikie boyfriend named Snake. His name is due to a body length tattoo of a snake that winds itself all along his back with its head and eyes staring from the back of his neck. It is obvious that Snake is nothing but trouble. But the levels to which he takes things out on both the mum and the boy are shocking and disturbing. Domestic violence on this scale was an alarming counterpoint to the beauty and kindness experienced between the old man and boy. It shows the stark reality life has, that is, where there is light, there is also shadow.
A remarkable novel that moved me in many ways. Moriarty’s literary fiction drama was short-listed for the 2013 Queensland Literary Awards for emerging author, short-listed for the 2016 Courier Mail People’s Choice Queensland Book of the Year, and long-listed for the 2017 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.
4.5 out of 5.