Spoiler alert … spoiler alert … spoiler alert
It was a change from the norm for this month’s “real-life” book group members, who don’t usually all read the same book, but instead tell each other about their individual reading for the month and then put the book or books in a communal library for sharing. Each month’s host also spends up to $100 on books (new or secondhand) for the library. Doesn’t that sound like fun?
The group, from Pt Chevalier in Auckland, started after seven of the 10 members (nine women and one man) were on a kindergarten committee together and had such a good time they decided to stay in touch. That was over a decade ago.
The members discussing David Ballantyne’s Sydney Bridge Upside Down are:
Richard Green, 44 (favourite books: The World According to Garp, by John Irving; On the Beach, by Nevil Shute).
George Roper, 52 (Any Human Heart, by William Boyd; A Dance to the Music of Time, by Anthony Powell; Novel About My Wife, by Emily Perkins).
Ann Worth, 45 (The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver).
Alex Woodley, 50 (Life of Pi, by Yann Martel; Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson; Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf; The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins; Tomorrow When the War Began, by John Marsden; Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte; Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte).
As always, dicussions took place over several weeks via Facebook, with some still reading as the month went on.
And as always, all bets are off spoiler-wise.
Kicking things off was Alex: “I loved it but found it increasingly creepy and disturbing – and the end is really unsettling. I picked it up and expected a much lighter summery, boy-going-through-adolescence growing-up-over-the-holidays type read. I felt quite unnerved when it became less boyish ‘bopping’ and summery wrestling [and more] some seriously disturbed behaviour. Perhaps if I had read it a bit more closely and carefully – I think the clues were probably there – perhaps I would not have been quite so taken aback. But the ‘creepiness’ kind of ‘crept’ up on me … I have to say if I had been the mum I might have made a run for it too!”
Richard: “Yeah, I feel the ending is coming up to surprise me – not sure what to expect…”
Alex: “You’ll be fine – you live on the ground floor!”
George: ”I am not as far ahead in the book. After having read Kate De Goldi’s intro of the author, why haven’t we read his works before? Anyway, I digress – I am enjoying reliving the innocent (so far) days of a hot summer holiday, but as I move on suspense is creeping in; turning the page, will I find out what game Caroline is really playing…”
Richard: “She was that girl at school that every boy wanted but couldn’t have – yet it seemed that everyone else was [...] I didn’t like Harry at the end. Seems to me he was a little sociopath all the way along. Unless I read it wrong – and I read the line over a few times – he killed Susan as well? The skinny witch? Seems he had a violent predisposition. Uncle Pember certainly was written with definite paedophiliac tendencies and Wiggins is a sad old bastard who was inappropriate with Caroline. Given Uncle Pember’s character, I would not be surprised at Caroline’s promiscuousness. What amazes me about the book is his ability to capture these issues a long time ago when they were not talked about – it must have rocked the literary world. I really like his narrative style and felt very much inside Harry’s head – and certainly at points his heart.”
Ann: “I very much agree with Alex’s comments at the start of this conversation. The creepiness crept up on me too. The gradual awareness that Harry has done these awful things and that he’s actually quite cruel (bopping takes on a different meaning) and callous. He doesn’t have any sort of moral compass (or maybe it’s lack of parental role models) to guide his actions. I love the way that all the below the surface stuff is only revealed bit by bit. As Kate De Goldi says – you need to look pay attention to what is not on the page.”
Alex: ”I did find it frustrating too, though – the low revealing – and the gradual unfolding made it difficult to follow and left me with a sense of not being confident that I still know exactly what happened – either then or subsequently. What was with the mumble mumble of Uncle Pember – is that showing us that there is some family madness? Something that perhaps the nasty little Harry – with his inexplicable dark moods – inherited? I actually felt really sorry for Caroline – and liked her a lot – sexually aware but damaged … It seemed that she was very out of the pot into the fire – escaping the city (and Uncle Pember) – to the sailors on the boat – relating to Harry in that overly sexualised way and then being leered at by the desperate unattractive men of Calliope Bay. I wondered if ending up with that young man was a blessing – or ultimately a curse – staying in the area!”
George: “Who the hell is this Uncle Pember, mumble mumble, is he really an ‘uncle’? How relevant is it that Mr Wiggins looked like Uncle Pember? Is it not awfully coincidental that Harry bumps into him in the city? If Harry’s mum was more interested in sleeping with other men, insulting her husband behind his back and wanting to get out of Calliope Bay, it is no wonder Harry’s moral compass is pointing the wrong way! Yes, Richard, very out there stuff to be writing about, though it still gets swept under the carpet today.”
Richard: ”I agree with both of you – my comments weren’t in any way meant to undermine Caroline’s obvious bad experience. There is a darkness and sadness in all [the] characters but [it's] really a reflection of any time. I think it was written with great foresight and awareness of these issues.”
Alex: “Is the mumble mumble stuff we can’t talk about – a way of saying we don’t talk about mumble mumble secrets out loud – I mean we are not very good about talking about sexual abuse now – let alone back then … and she never did reveal `the secret’ to Harry – although he seemed to know …”
George: “A good analogy.Could Uncle Pember be any paedophile?”
Alex: “He did think he saw Uncle Pember at the fair – when he was hyper-sensitised about protecting the sexy Caroline from Wiggins and men … perhaps he was a real uncle to Caroline but in Harry’s mind more than that – more an ever-threatening, predatory man. So who knows? Oooh, how interesting!”
George: “Who was really Mr Wiggins? Part of Caroline’e autobiography talks about her friend Penny meeting Uncle Pember in the city. Uncle Pember, black beard and a black cloak, and wearing dark glasses, sounds way too creepy.”
Ann: “On a slightly different track, how did you feel about the way the book ended? I started feeling more empathy for Harry as he revealed more about his life (school, mother, etc) at the end of the book, which showed how damaged he was. Then finally there’s the running away and desperate search for his mother, which is so heartwrenching, but there’s definitely no redemption in sight for him – the last sentence is pretty chilling.”
Richard: “I had lost my empathy for the character by then. I think Uncle Pember was a representation of those issues and Harry saw him in many men who could have been him.”
Richard (again, asked about the book’s themes and the New Zealand landscape in it): ”I am not sure I can pinpoint the theme – it looks to me as if it changes as the book develops. What I thought was an End of the Golden Weather/The Scarecrow coming-of-age NZ fiction classic turns out to be a sociopathic murderous young boy confused by his burgeoning sexuality and jealousy of his cousin and the affections shown to her by others. I would almost compare this to American Psycho in the sense of a seeming ordinary narrative disguising a series of killings. Although I cannot honestly remember any blatant reference to killing or graphic description of such. Did I miss anything there? The book does, as I have alluded to earlier, look at subjects that were not openly discussed then (and to some degree now), such as abuse. The NZ landscape? Hell, yes. To me it was summer on the beach in the bach. That Ronald Hugh Morrieson/Bruce Mason feel but a lot darker as it progresses.”
George: “Oh yes, a New Zealand landscape, those lazy hazy summer days with nothing but six weeks’ holiday rolling in front of you. The destruction of small towns when one of the main income streams is taken away (the closure of the meatworks), how the community disintegrates as people move away. I was also struck by the seeming lack of empathy from within the community when they lost two of their members, especially in such a violent manner – how seemingly accepting they were of it all.”
Alex: “The landscape felt very NZ to me, the long summer, homemade ginger beer, the sandhills on the beach, the small town-ness feel, the tree (pohutakawa?) over the edge of the cliff, the abandoned meat works – I felt it was like the Coromandel – although I think the prologue said it was likely to be the East Cape. It also had the slight misfittish feel of small town NZ which was slowly being abandoned by all those that could have breathed life into it but were leaving for the nearest town or city.”
Richard (asked about the book’s title and the role of Sam Phelps): ”The title was interesting and had me curious before reading but it was early on that it was introduced so after that it didn’t really raise any negative or positive feelings. Sam – maybe Harry’s moral compass in the sense of him being the one that he was wary of – as if Sam had him pegged from the beginning as trouble.”
Alex: ”I’m not sure what to make of the title. All through the book, the man at the edge of the world with his scarred face was there with his horse, Sydney Bridge Upside Down, ever watching, slightly threatening. I guess the upside down is about things are not as they seem. The scarred face and bag of bones horse all suggests decline. Sam Phelps witnessed that terrible summer, and the terrible happenings. The teacher suspects Sam is not as he seems; the locals see him as a good man – Harry, I suspect, picks up on this conflicted view. Yet another ‘is he/isn’t he’ dilemma he is trying to understand. There is such a lack of clarity in the adult world he sees – and subsequently, as we are seeing it through his eyes, we see. Perhaps Sam’s animosity towards Harry is that he was there through the whole summer – witnessing the ‘accidents’ in a community the size of an infilled driveway in Auckland! Perhaps he really is a sinister man – there are conflicting views – but he certainly becomes a sinister Mr Pember figure in Harry’s fractured adult mind.”
All of which leaves one question: would they recommend the book to others?
Richard: ”I would definitely recommend the book. I really enjoyed it. I would also like to see who has the film rights, as I would like to make it into a film – it has that very visual feel about it and I strongly believe it would translate well. I would like to read more of his books.”
George: “I would absolutely recommend it. A friend is a child psychotherapist - she would love it, the darkness and suspense, the progression and outcome. I have to be honest and say I had never heard of David Ballantyne but I am looking forward to researching and sourcing some more of his work.”
Alex: “I would be hesitant to recommend it. I think Joanne Black wrote something in the Listener recently about Swallows and Amazons, and the children it was being read to found it dull compared with the books they had been reading – like The Hunger Games. I wonder if the slow and incomplete reveal might not suit everyone. The big themes are there – but under the surface. The menace is there – but disguised by accidents. The sexuality is there – but kind of disturbed. Everything is in the shadows. Some of the less plot-driven, huge-theme, high-drama writers - like Emily Perkins, for example - get away with this as they write just so beautifully their novels are delicious to read. This was not like that – his writing could not be described as gorgeous. The compulsion was to find out what happened – and then I felt left with a lot of unanswered questions at the end. I liked it enough to reread it – to answer the questions a bit better – and to be honest it might take a few more reads after that! But I do wonder if it is quite an audience-specific book – ie if you are comfortable with being left with uncertainty. I find it a bit like a bruise you have to poke all the time to see if it still hurts, as I am unsure of the answers and want/need to keep revisiting it. Although the end explains a little about the who and perhaps even the why, it didn’t fully explain the what! And if anyone can tell me what happened that day at the cliff …”
Unfortunately, we don’t know if Ann would recommend the book or not – as she had disappeared from the conversation by this point. Hopefully she hadn’t wandered too near any abandoned meatworks.