Kalinda Ashton's debut novel is already attracting an impressive roll-call of accolades from writers like Christos Tsiolkas and Amanda Lohrey – and our Readings interviewer. Kalinda's short stories have been published in various publications, including the Sleepers Almanacs. She is currently associate editor of Overland and she has been involved in student, union and community campaigns. Rebecca Starford, recent Deputy Editor of Australian Book Review, spoke to Kalinda about The Danger Game for Readings' New Australian Writing Feature series.
Kalinda Ashton’s The Danger Game is a confronting and poignant novel. This quietly brutal début introduces a vigorous, assured voice into the contemporary literary sphere. With discreet pathos, The Danger Game examines the prevailing institutions of state education, unions, and welfare and human services, and the lasting effects of disassociation on individuals within these systems.
Alice and Louise are sisters welded by tragedy: 14 years ago, their ten-year-old brother, Jeremy, set the family house on fire and burnt to death. The sisters are haunted by Jeremy’s death, and the lingering possibility that it wasn’t an accident. Devastated by grief, their mother leaves the family, never to return. Their father, a man who ‘fancied himself as an autodidact’ but struggles to find gainful employment, raises the girls.
The Danger Game is a careful analysis of how certain types of deprivation (in this case love, affection and familial support), coupled with economic marginalisation, compound in a moment of trauma. Kalinda Ashton’s well-drawn characters are emblematic of a system gone wrong: though socially integrated, Alice remains sober, jaded and emotionally dysfunctional – ‘I have feigned emotional immunity for so long it was difficult to recognise an honest feeling’. Louise is more explicitly disenfranchised, living a vagrant lifestyle, battling drug addiction and depending on Centrelink handouts. As adults, the sisters have predictably drifted apart, until one day Alice receives a telephone call from Louise, claiming to have recognised their mother in the street. This dubious sighting facilitates a painful confrontation with the past.
Obvious comparisons can be drawn to Elliot Perlman’s Three Dollars, a novel that also rebuked the economic rationalism that shatters the fundamental humanity of marginalised Australians. It is germane stuff – subject matter that can polarise, too. The strength of The Danger Game lies in the way Ashton has refracted the weighty content through these damaged yet endearing young women.
Discussing the politics in the novel, Ashton is reluctant to brand her fiction as ‘political writing’. ‘There’s not really such a thing in Australia at the moment as a political novel and a non-political novel,’ she says. ‘Because all writing responds to the workings of power and it has a relationship with how things are now.’ She distinguishes her politics from those in The Danger Game: though she comes from a left, activist background, her stance is very different from her characters.’ ‘I feel incredibly invested in this approach to writing,’ Ashton reiterates, ‘but one thing that I would say about it is that I don’t have that pre-existing idea about what subject matter is notionally political or critical.’ What is most compelling about The Danger Game is the way these concerns unite organically, while preserving the gritty humanist agenda.
You will be immediately struck by the The Danger Game’s ambitious narrative structure, split between the three siblings across dual time-frames. It is a structure, Ashton admits, that came about accidentally – ‘I thought I was going to write a novel in the first-person, present tense’. But as she wrote, the idea of working in the first-person became ‘a bit suffocating’. Jeremy’s voice returns us to 1991, shortly before his death. In the present, Alice is an authoritative first-person narrator, and an instrument for the political discourse. In contrast, Louise is raw and precocious; her vibrancy leaps from the page. We read Louise in the second-person, an infrequent narrative device. ‘The thing I like about the second-person,’ Ashton says, ‘is that it’s hard to know what level of authority this voice has – how truthful it is ... I like the ambiguity.’
The novel generates much of its dramatic tension through this disparity of voice. While it raises many complex notions about historical and collective truths, it also creates a robust dynamism between Alice and Louise, two vastly different women. ‘They’re not heroic characters who are romantically struggling,’ Ashton laughs. ‘They do things to each other that are really distasteful and quite awful, at times.’ Louise, particularly, maintains an unhinged sort of liberation. But she is manipulative and untrustworthy, her ‘truths’ are articulated in visceral, drug-addled passages filled with tortured remembrance. Louise fascinates, frustrates and alienates in equal measure; she constantly challenges our empathy.
Kalinda Ashton admits, with a grin, that there is a fair amount of darkness in The Danger Game – ‘which is strange’, she adds, ‘because I’m not like that at all!’ More than darkness, fear permeates the story. ‘I think there is a lot of fear in Australian society at the moment,’ Ashton reflects. ‘Some of it is perhaps founded and a lot of it is a hysteria that’s generated by contemporary politics in the media.’ She considers that ‘almost everyone in the book is afraid. In some ways the book is about the idea that we should be afraid in the world, to some extent – and that we have to be prepared to combat certain inequalities and deficiencies in society.’ Alice, in particular, personifies these concerns – she harbours all kinds of ambivalences: in her working life, in her friendships, and in her relationship with the middle-class, apathetic Jon. This detached behaviour serves as a buffer of sorts, delaying the process of emotional maturation. To avoid scrutinising herself, Alice invests her emotional energy in school projects and somewhat naïve politics. What Alice doesn’t realise is that her grieving process needs to be a collective one, and that reconnection with her family – and people around her – will facilitate this.
‘The sisters keep thinking that if they can just go back to the past, if they just look inwards more successfully, they’re going to be able to overcome the sense of being terrified,’ Ashton says. ‘I think what I’ve tried to do in the book is have a structure almost like an “anti-thriller” where in fact all the information they find when they go on this quest is not in fact what is the catharsis or release but the journey back into their lives now, and finding something collective out of the experience.’
While The Danger Game may be grim matter, it’s not a grim read – hope resounds at the novel’s end. At times, a dignified austerity enters the prose, but there is a lot of humour, too. And Ashton is a genuine wordsmith; she pays close attention to traits and mannerisms, those finer details that build nuanced characters. Take the description of Alice as a child, for example: ‘There’s a rigidity to Alice’s skinny limbs, as if she had metal inside her.’ Later, other figures are introduced through similarly astute, revelatory portrayals: ‘I could believe she had been in prison. There was something in her skin that looked used: discarded and put back on wrong. When she moved, she had the motions of a person used to counting time.’ It is prose of the highest order.
So, what’s next? ‘I have two books I’m working on at the moment,’ Ashton says, with excitement. ‘One’s an adult novel set in America which is dealing with an unreliable narrator.’ The second is a young adult novel – ‘It’s incredibly dark,’ she chuckles.
With such a powerful, moving début novel, we have much to look forward to from Kalinda Ashton.
Rebecca Starford is Associate Publisher at Affirm Press and former deputy editor of Australian Book Review. She reviews regularly for The Age and The Weekend Australian.