Reviewed by Robert Goodman.
By Mark Brandi, Hachette, $32.99.
Mark Brandi burst onto the Australian crime scene even before he was published with his award winning debut Wimmera. That book tackled the very real issue of child sexual abuse and in particular the power imbalance between the abuser and the abused. Brandi’s second novel The Rip, moved away from this particular trauma to focus on a drug addict living on the streets of Melbourne. His third book, The Others, while different again, goes back to some of the themes of Wimmera, focussing particularly on the power that parents or authority figures can exercise over the young.
After a disturbing cold open, The Others main narrative comes from the diaries of Jacob, an eleven year old boy living with his father on a remote property. The pair are living off the grid, Jacob’s mother having died when he was a baby, relying on their own produce and the things that Jacob’s father can pick up. According to his father, the two are some of the last survivors of a plague that has decimated humanity. But some unexplained events have Jacob questioning the narrative of his life.
Writing from the perspective of an eleven-year-old is a bit of a tightrope. It is unlikely that a young boy home-schooled in the way Jacob has been would be able to write in the way Jacob does. Brandi navigates some of this by giving Jacob both a dictionary and an encyclopedia, both of which he references, often giving him a slightly skewed version of the broader world. Harder to explain is that even after Jacob gets a hint that his father might be reading the diaries, he continues to record events and feelings that he probably would not want his father to know. Readers have to take some of these other issues on trust because once you get past this minor suspension of disbelief, Brandi delivers a disturbing tale of mental illness, power and resilience.
Brandi builds some of his tension on the reader’s knowledge of post-apocalyptic narratives and tropes. Given that we only have Jacob’s point of view, the underlying question becomes what if Jacob’s father is telling the truth. The rest is just the helplessness of an eleven year old at the mercy of the idiosyncratic rules laid down by an autocratic adult and the punishments which come from breaking those rules. All of which builds to a tense, heartbreaking finale which also manages to consider the long term impact that this kind of upbringing can have on a young person.
In The Others, Brandi once again shows a deep understanding of the both vulnerability and resilience of young people. Jacob is a victim of circumstances but does his best to live a good life even without a great role model. He shows endless wonder in the world around him and compassion for the animals under his care, even the young injured fox that has been attacking the lambs. So that while The Others is in some ways a dark tale, it is also infused with a spark of hope that comes through strongly in the voice of its narrator.
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