The Brave by Nicholas Evans
Nicholas Evans' new novel, The Brave, deals with the hard edges of life. This is a story of people and relationships interlaced with a complicated and ambitious plot. At its heart is the tremendous cost of buried secrets and the damage they do as they drip relentlessly down the generations.
By the time Tom Bedford is middle-aged, his family has three major secrets. The first is relatively harmless. The second is rip-roaringly hideous while the third pulls the first two out of the darkness and hopefully extinguishes their dreadful legacy.
The book opens with Tommy as a 13-year-old boy visiting his mother. She's in prison, on death row. He's angry. Once Evans has our attention, the story goes back to the beginning with Tommy as a lonely 6-year-old obsessed with the cowboys and Indians he watches, avidly, on TV. His parents are old - too old to be interested. Indeed, they're about to send Tommy to boarding school.
This time Evans gives his readers time to identify with his characters before flicking forward in time again. His description of Tommy's first term at a British boarding school reeks of either first-hand knowledge or seriously in-depth research. Either way, Evans gets inside the mind and heart of a little boy, producing descriptions of bullying and beatings just trivial enough to make them believable - and serious enough to compel Tommy to write to his exciting actress sister and implore her to rescue him.
Although the novel is sliced together in modern style, Evans deals his readers slabs of story rather than slivers. He also establishes a rhythm that makes sense rather than infuriates as we follow our hero from boyhood to middle age, between England and the US and between the late 1950s and early 2000s.
Evans' ability as a writer is never in doubt. He writes about relationships with sure-handed, believable insight. He writes, convincingly, from the point-of-view of a child and a disenchanted middle-aged man. His prose, and his plot, both rattle along at a cracking pace, holding the tension to the last word.
Without being heavy-handed he scatters unsettling hints and clues that save The Brave from lapsing into a straight love story. We know from the beginning that our heroine, the sweet and lovely film star, is going to die. Just how it happens, and why, is forgotten, then hinted at again, then teased out to the last few pages.
Which makes this fascinating novel all the more powerful. This is a story about how we are shaped by the things that happen to us, rather than those we plan. It is a story about collisions of cultures, generations, manners and morals. It is a story about love, the indelible love of a mother for her child, and a father for his son - and the way that love can so easily backfire. Ultimately it is a tale of redemption.
You may wonder why it is more than five years since Evans' last book, The Divide, was published. Since The Horse Whisperer, which sold 14 million copies, made his name and a block-buster movie, Evans has managed a novel every few years. Until now.
The Brave was set back when Evans, his wife and friends picked and ate some wild and deadly poisonous mushrooms. All four adults suffered wrecked kidneys and three of them are still on dialysis and looking for kidney transplant donors.
I hope someone offers him one soon. Evans is much too brilliant and valuable a writer to be cut down in his prime by a feed of mushrooms.
Carroll du Chateau is an Auckland reviewer.