***Trigger Warning… this book review discusses child sex abuse, predators and domestic violence***
Wimmera by Mark Brandi is a period novel, set in rural Victoria in the late eighties and later in the nineties. Brandi’s novel follows two protagonists Ben and Fab, beginning year 6 of primary school. They are best friends, united against the harsh reality of Australian school playgrounds and anti-immigrant rhetoric. The novel begins with the tragic suicide of his neighbour, a young thirteen-year-old girl. The rumoured motivation for her demise is referenced throughout the novel. It is used as a foreshadowing for things to come for the protagonists and the adults around them. The silence of things left unsaid about this tragedy sets up a common theme within this novel.
The new neighbour that moves into his neighbour’s house is a mystery to Ben and Fab initially until he decides to befriend Ben and his family. What follows is Ben being unwittingly groomed by his neighbour Ronnie. The town of Wimmera has a dark underbelly to its suburban facade and many of its residents are completely oblivious. The everyday minutiae that Brandi highlights, shows such as Knightrider, back yard cricket and cartoons show us how treacherous events and people can lurk underneath seemingly normal life.
What is perhaps more striking in this novel is how paralyzing silence actually is and how remaining silent when uncomfortable about someone can have disastrous consequences. Both protagonists are completely powerless from the adults in their lives and do not feel they have a voice. The crippling culture of silence is highlighted in an important scene where Fab is informed by his father, that his Dad does not have long to live. This is met by a few minutes of silence from Fab and his father and then his parent leaves and walks away.
If Ben were in an environment where he felt his feelings would be taken seriously, I feel many of the events that took place could have been avoided. I also feel if Fab had have felt there was an adult he could turn to in regards to the domestic violence and alcoholism his father inflicted he would have had a much happier life. Fab’s prospects are bleak after school, due to his low self-confidence and lack of support or direction in his life.
After I finished reading Brandi’s novel I was struck by how voiceless the two protagonists were and the need to provide safe spaces for children and teens to voice their feelings if they are uncomfortable or unwilling.
The novel is prefaced with a passage from Faulkner’s ‘As I lay Dying’. It is interesting because I read through the novel I was reminded of how like Faulkner, Brandi also uses the buildings the characters are living is as metaphor’s for the circumstances of the inhabitants. Strong attention is paid to the conditions of roofs, ceilings, size and shapes of the dwellings itself.
All in all, I found this book powerful, moving and thought-provoking. The ending left myself feeling a little unsatisfied. There was more I wanted to know about both protagonists and I feel this book could be developed further. However, it was brilliantly written with sensitivity and capturing the essence of the late eighties and early nineties, perfectly.