Like a lot of people I know, I expect to die under my pile of my ‘to read’ books. Deciding what to read next is arduous. You don’t want to start and not finish. But, at the same time, you don’t want to start one that kind of sucks and find yourself forcing your way through it or tricking yourself into thinking you know how to speed read.
I also don’t like to rely solely on the books I own but haven’t read. I like to buy new ones, keep my collection fresh. Buying new books ensures that I continue to expand my horizon of what I will read. It also makes me feel less guilty when I see all of those book shops closing.
When I bought ‘Of a Boy’ by Sonja Hartnett, I was in the mood to make an impulse purchase. I decided to get away from my laptop, as I’d spent enough on iTunes and my Kindle.
I found myself in that weekend second hand book store on Sydney Road. Upstairs, is a bunch of new agey books, but it has a great fiction section, too. I was attracted to ‘Of a Boy’ because it’s short, has a strange title, and has one of those gold stickers on the front which told me it won an award. I also loved one of her other books, ‘The Ghost’s Child’, to which I was attracted for the same reasons.
This was a gamble book. When I spotted the novel, I decided that I wouldn’t read anything about it or check the Good reads rating. I’d just buy it, trust the author and the gold sticker, and give it a read.
It’s about three children in a small suburb in 1977 who go missing. It explores, in part, the manner in which the constant collective stress of such an incident plays on the minds of the neighbourhood.
The narrator describes the thoughts of each lonely character with a matter-of-fact detachment that’s both economical and gut wrenching. This book is all about that bubbling-under-the-surface tension. Hartnett often makes mention of the mundane news reports of the missing children, working it in with a character’s neurosis and thus weaving a sense of tension into everything they think. I knew the approach was working by how paranoid I felt reading it. And the ending, which I won’t ruin, is as tragic as tragic comes.
It’s told mostly from the perspective of a young boy, Adrian. Adrian’s perspective was one of the more refreshingly realistic depictions of childhood I’ve come across. The insight into Adrian’s thoughts reminded me of ‘Boyhood’ by John Coetzee. It isn’t coy, or cute, but honest about the parameters of a child’s understanding of the world. Believing in monsters doesn’t make his life exciting and magical. It just adds something new to fear.
The central relationship between Adrian and Nicole is sensitively portrayed. It doesn’t over romanticize their interactions or create cutesy moments that makes the reader go ‘aww shucks’. Instead, the children are presented truthfully, with awkward steps towards friendship and the bluntness of childhood conversation. By presenting them truthfully, it makes the characters all the more sympathetic.
It’s the sort of book you need to read over a short span of time. It’s about the consistent tension throughout and it helps to get lost in the feel of it, rather than take long hiatuses between chapters.
It was only after I finished that I learned this book is often cited in the argument of whether YA can be literary (spoiler: it can). I can see why and for good reason. The author doesn’t talk down to her readers or trivialise the characters just because they’re young.
The voice has really stuck with me. It’s simple, in the sense that it isn’t flashy and is delicately balanced. The narrator never gives the reader an inch. Hartnett tells you just enough about the characters to keep you engaged but leaves it to the reader to invest their own emotions and thoughts. She’ll focus in on a single detail, such as the feeling of a dead bird’s wing, offering this as the only visceral detail as she moves swiftly from one moment to the next. It’s confident writing. The author is not only showing confidence in her technique but in the reader as well, to be able to piece together the story with what she gives you.
I’ve dedicated weeks to thick novels with interweaving intergenerational plots that I never thought of again when I finished. Books I can take off my deadly ‘to read’ pile. Here’s a book I read in a week that I haven’t stopped thinking about since.