One thing you can be sure of when you open a Kate De Goldi book is that it'll be good. More than good, most of the time.

One thing you can't be sure of is what genre it'll be. Edgy YA novel? Ingenious picture book? Authoritative literary study? Distinctive adult fiction? The author is a real Renaissance woman.

This one is a cross-over novel of "stories within stories within stories". We're told at the start it's written by a supine, seriously-injured survivor of some major disaster. You may think you recognise the setting. You're probably right.

Events take place in a sprightly inner suburb where lives eponymous, almost-adolescent Barney, a movie director famed throughout his entire school class, the genius behind a nativity story where Mary and Joseph arrive on a tandem. Along with him comes little sister Ren, flawless speller, obsessive list-maker, devotee of all that's ghoulish.

Advertisement

So far, so cute 'n' cosy. And indeed, it's an idyllic existence in The Street, with its community of creatives, eccentrics and aspirants, along with numerous kids whose jumble of idealism, energy and self-centredness keeps things bouncing along.

But you sense there's something here so innocent, so charmed, that it's almost certain to crack. And halfway through, just as Barney has overcome his Director's Block and objects have begun inexplicably disappearing, small white envelopes with "YOU" inscribed on the front start turning up in strange locations.

Brother and sister become obsessed with strange cartoon figures. Two older characters appear, enigmatic, potentially inimical. Things darken, become ambivalent. "(N)othing is quite as it was."

The narrative plunges towards a terrible loss, a genuine narrative master-stroke, in 32 seconds of fear which I have absolutely no intention of revealing to you, before a coda of tentative healing and affirmation. It's an ending which leaves you shaken yet somehow reassured.

The Cutting Room is fascinated by the bounteous variety and unpredictability of people. One of De Goldi's skills has always been in building pre-adult characters complex and credible enough to engage adult readers, and she does that again here.

It's a cast as colourful as an operetta: Suit, who carries an alarm clock in his briefcase; Coralie, baker of (Organic) Iced Rodents - brackets obligatory; Orange Boy and Crimson Girl, potent yet evasive. The plot occasionally gets distracted by the near-surfeit of people, but as one of them notes during Barney's documentary of The Street's stories, "Look what you unleashed!"

Some nice literary tropes are tucked away: the semi-reliable narrator; the beloved writers who "take up residence within you"; story as odyssey and therapy. Great control of tone; a protagonist who will haunt you for days afterwards; breadth of skill and generosity of spirit. An author who's a national asset.

From The Cutting Room Of Barney Kettle
by Kate De Goldi
(Longacre $30)