THE LOUDNESS OF UNSAID THINGS
By Hilde Hinton (Hachette, $35)
Reviewed by Elspeth Sandys
On the cover of Hilde Hinton's debut novel are the words, "This novel will make you act more kindly to those who are lost." My immediate reaction was to put up my guard; it's not the business of novels to instruct readers on how to behave. If that's the intention behind this novel then I'm not going to react well.
As it turned out, my reservations were only partly justified. There's no escaping the novel's message but in the end, to my surprise - given the pedestrian nature of much of the prose - the story wins out. A twist in the tale, which it would be wrong to reveal here, raises the novel above the level of yet another story of victimhood, to something more interesting and nuanced.
We first meet Susie, whose story this is, as a primary school pupil. She and her father - Susie is an only child - have moved to Melbourne where Susie's mother is incarcerated in a "mind hospital". How Susie deals with her mother's mental illness and the strange and colourful people who come into her life as a result, is the starting point for the story. Susie has a helicopter imagination, a poorly developed antennae for knowing who to trust and a wild delight in life despite its frightening unpredictability. Clearly she is headed for a difficult life.
Some things in the novel work better than others. Susie's friendships, for example. Geoffrey, the boy she escapes to Sydney with, is nicely delineated, as is Louis, the would-be artist she meets at her Sydney school. But the relationship with her father, which draws the reader in during the 150 pages, is mysteriously dropped.
Part of my difficulty with this novel stems from the author's decision to start the story in the voice of Susie as a 9 or 10-year-old girl, progressing to her as a 17-year-old, with a final section in the voice of Susie as an old woman. But in reality there is very little to choose between these voices. Susie the child tells her story in the form of one thing after another, a technique the author never really abandons. Had the story been written for children this would not have been a problem but, for the adult reader, the lack of variety can be wearying.
In the end, though, the book is redeemed by the twist in the tale. The hitherto puzzling inserts, printed in a different font, suddenly make sense. Susie, whose 'feelings were usually deep stabs that didn't last too long' can be seen whole, her deepest feelings sensed in the direction her life has taken.
MY DARK VANESSA
By Kate Elizabeth Russell (Harper Collins, $37 - eBook available)
Reviewed by Lillie Rohan
My Dark Vanessa jumps between 2000 and 2017 where an adult Vanessa struggles to come to terms with her teenage relationship years earlier with her teacher. She once viewed this relationship to be her first love but as she is backed into a corner by beliefs she has constantly defined her life by, she starts to comprehend her "love story" was darker and more complicated than she ever allowed herself to admit.
Vanessa gives harrowing insight and understanding into the unsettling topic of a teacher/student relationship. Every moment of her story is well captured and perfectly paced, with the author Kate Elizabeth Russell doing a magnificent job of making this psychological fiction a constant page-turner. The curious desire to understand a relationship between a 15-year-old girl and her 42-year-old English teacher is both overwhelming and captivating leaving readers feeling unsettled with how easily manipulation can occur in a power dynamic, yet despite the feeling of knowing what comes next, there is a need to try to understand a situation that has so often brushed under the carpet.
My Dark Vanessa takes the standard definition of rape and abuse and opens the reader's mind to ask more questions surrounding these words, allegations, and definitions. It brings up the topic of #MeToo and ever so delicately, dances with the consequences of victim-blaming. This book is confronting and uncomfortable but nevertheless it is a book that needs to be read to start to comprehend how abuse is not a situation that can be viewed under a black or white lens, it is far more grey and can take years to understand or even admit to.
My Dark Vanessa thrusts you back into the time of being a 15-year-old girl navigating a world you are yet to understand. A thrilling book that can be related to in the sense of flirting with adulthood while still under the premise of being naïve and desperate to be seen. Highly recommendable for someone looking for an intoxicating, confronting book that leaves an aftertaste you can't quite get rid of. It will have you re-reading chapters and asking yourself questions for days.
By Alma Katsu (Bantam Press, $37 - ebook available)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel
Few stories have held their mystery and sense of tragic foreboding than the tale of the Titanic. When the mighty ship set sail from Southampton bound for New York, carrying some of the world's wealthiest people, no one could have foretold how few of them would be seen alive again. The departure that took place with so much fanfare and excitement ended so suddenly and with such a massive loss of life and promise. It was like the Titanic carried the hopes and dreams of a new technological age of human ingenuity but all those expectations were crushed when it sank beneath the icy waters of the Atlantic.
For four brief days the Titanic pridefully ruled the waves, days of frivolity, fun and laughter. Alma Katsu builds a ghostly dimension to the story of these doomed souls, linking the sinking of the Titanic with the loss of her sister vessel, the hospital ship Britannic only four years later. Laden with medical staff on its way to the battlefields of Europe, the Britannic hit a German mine and sank.
We meet some of the real people who were aboard the Titanic: Madeleine Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Lady Duff-Gordon and the journalist W.T. Stead. Stewardess Annie Hebbley, on the run - from what we do not yet know, has Mark Fletcher and his wife Caroline and baby daughter Ondine among her wealthy charges. Hebbley meets Fletcher again, aboard the Britannic, where she is a wartime nurse and he is one of her injured patients. And as the two ships steam towards their dates with destiny four years apart, relationships unravel and dark secrets are revealed among the crew and the passengers.
What lets down The Deep is its overwrought and overly melodramatic writing. Events are written about in weighty words that take away from what could be a promising premise. Too much time is spent building drama and pathos that could have been spent adding to the haunting. At times the amount of historical detail also become distracting. It was as if facts had been uncovered in the research – and certainly Katsu seems to have done an extensive job – had to be used.
But more than 100 years later, it is obvious the story of the Titanic and its four brief days of glory that ended so terribly, will remain a fascinating topic for many authors to come.
AND ONE FOR YOUNGER READERS
By Sarah Epstein (Allen & Unwin, $23)
Reviewed by Helen van Berkel
Getting into the head of a teenager is nigh on impossible as a parent, let alone as an author. But Sarah Epstein, in Deep Water, has produced a mystery that is just as much about teenagers coming to grips with their parents' failures as it is about the mysterious disappearance of a young boy. Deep Water unravels the disturbing loss of 13-year-old Henry Weaver while laying out the struggle of teenagers trying to reconcile the world their flawed parents have shown them with the realities of the world that exists beyond the four walls of their homes.
Chloe Baxter is the product of a broken home, shuffled between her life with her mother in Sydney and her father in the New South Wales Highlands and the town in which she was born. Her friends are here and her life was here - until her mother's affair. Home for the school holidays, she is determined to learn the whereabouts of her friend Henry, who disappeared on the night of a terrific storm three months ago and is thought to have run away.
Like Chloe's,Henry's home life was less than ideal and he had good reason to run away. But did he? Would he have disappeared without saying anything to his closest friends? And why has no one heard from him since that night?
As Chloe probes the mystery, she questions the motives of those closest to her. She and her friends jump to erroneous conclusions and act on their own errors – not to mention what they interpret as the motives of others - to complicate things even further. Deep Water follows the story from differing perspectives and manages the balancing act between keeping the reader in the space between knowing something is up and getting impatient on the path to find out what that is.
As we follow Chloe's story, we also see her from the point of view of others; a process that is surely part of the adolescent struggle of reconciling the chasm between childhood and adulthood, between thinking Mum and Dad are always right and realising they are not.
The young adult audience for whom Epstein is writing will find much to admire in Chloe – as well as behaviour to disdain. Although the many, many books in this genre tell us that Henry's disappearance is not a simple affair, we are kept guessing about his fate until the end. Behaviour of the combatants and events along the way that seem to have no purpose neatly leads to the answers and add facets to the characters in a young adult novel that is also satisfying for older readers.