Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Honey Brown has gotten quite a lot of notice among Australian readers; but her work is less well-known in other countries. There are a lot of reasons for which geography still represents a barrier for authors who want their work known outside of their own countries, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. The crime fiction blogosphere has proven to be a fabulous resource for discovering crime writers; that was certainly the case with Honey Brown’s Through the Cracks. Many thanks to Carol at Reading, Writing and Riesling for the chance to read it. Trust me, you want to add her blog to your roll if you enjoy reading. And wine. And dogs. And great ‘photos and recipes. Let’s turn today’s spotlight on Through the Cracks.
In suburban New South Wales, fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has finally summoned the physical and emotional strength to escape his abusive father Joe. One of the problems Adam faces is that he’s been kept very much under lock and key, with no sense of the real world or how to survive in it. So he is naïve in a lot of ways, and vulnerable. He finds an ally though in Billy Benson, a young man who visits the house just as Adam’s getting ready to flee. With Billy’s encouragement and help, Adam leaves.
The two spend the next week together, with Billy providing a great deal of streetwise knowledge. They manage to get food, shelter and clothes, and Billy looks out for Adam. As they spend more and more time together, Adam learns a lot that he’s missed out on and the two get to be close friends (and no, this isn’t the exploitative relationship you might think; that’s not where this story goes). As they spend time together, some uncomfortable questions come up, and the past seems to come back to haunt both of them. And as the week goes on, they get mixed up in real trouble.
As it turns out, the two are connected in ways neither of them is comfortable discussing. It’s all related to the ten-year-old disappearance of Nathan Fisher, who was at Market Day with his parents when he went missing. As we learn who Adam and Billy really are, and how their stories fit together, we also see how strong a force memories and past trauma can be.
One of the important elements in this story is the way children view the world. When they’re in certain abusive situations, children often tend to blame themselves, and feel guilty about the things they may have to do. What’s more, children who’ve been abused become conditioned, so that it’s very hard for them to just leave:
‘A chicken or a tiger, it was hard for both to leave their cages.’
It’s equally hard for them to explain to others why they think and behave as they do.
Along with this, there’s the question of what happens when a survivor of real trauma returns to the everyday world. It’s not just a matter of clean clothes, regular food and so on, although those are essential. Fitting back in and being part of, for example, a family, isn’t as easy as it seems. Neither is building up any sense of trust in anyone. There are certainly people in the novel who are good to both Adam and Billy. But only they really understand what they’ve been through, if I can put it that way. And sometimes the way they act is alienating, and people don’t always look past that to see what they’ve had to face.
There’s also moral ambiguity in the novel. Both Adam and Billy do things that are dark and very difficult for them. Both cope with a great deal of guilt for that reason. But a different perspective is offered by DC Kieran Worth, who’s investigating some of the incidents that involve them. He says,
‘‘It’s a web. These kids get stuck.’’
And that’s exactly what happens. More than once, both Adam and Billy find themselves in extreme situations where it’s not really clear what the best choice is. And if you add to that the history we learn about each, it’s not as easy to decide ‘what I would do.’ And as you would guess in a novel with moral ambiguity, most of the characters are neither ‘all good’ nor ‘all bad.’ Some are portrayed as awful, but more of them are people caught in certain circumstances that make it hard to choose the way we’d like to think they’d choose.
And that leads to another element in the story: the question of whose responsibility it is when there is an abusive situation. To give just one example, the woman living next door to Joe Vander called the police several times about her suspicions of what might be going on there. But almost nothing was done about it. There are other places in the story, too, where people might have acted, but didn’t. Could Adam have been spared? What would life have been like for Billy? It’s hard to know, and Brown doesn’t portray these characters as stupid, heartless or uncaring. And there is a real issue of what the line is between concern for children’s safety on the one hand, and being judgemental and prying on the other. The line is sometimes blurred.
Running throughout the novel is also the theme of friendship. Billy and Adam develop a very strong bond that survives quite a lot. They support each other, they help each other, and they do their best to protect each other. This isn’t the sort of ‘Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn’ sort of friendship. This one is forged in real trauma with horrible consequences.
The story isn’t a happy one. Readers who do not like stories where children are harmed or abused will want to know that some terrible things are referred to in this novel. That said though, Brown does not go into lurid detail about any of it. Rather, we see the physical and psychological scars left behind. And although the story is dark in a lot ways, we also see a proverbial ray of light. There are hints that Adam and Billy will go on and have whole lives.
Through the Cracks is the story of two people who survive some horrible things in the best way they can. It takes place in New South Wales; sadly, though, it’s not hard to imagine it could happen in other places too. It features young people with more courage than they know and more determination than you’d imagine, and depicts what it’s like to try to start over. But what’s your view? Have you read Through the Cracks? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 23 March/Tuesday 24 March – The Nameless Dead – Brian McGilloway
Monday 30 March/Tuesday 31 March – The Circular Staircase – Mary Roberts Rinehart
Monday 6 April/Tuesday 7 April – Old City Hall – Robert Rotenberg