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Julienne Van Loon

Full of suspense, Harmless, is the tightly woven story of eight year old Amanda, whose father is in prison, and Rattuwat, a Thai man burying his daughter in a strange land. Abandoning their broken-down car on the way to the prison’s visiting hour, Amanda and Rattuwat venture into the trackless scrub of Australia’s outer suburbs. As the day heats up, the sense of menace intensifies and each of them enters the no-man’s-land between safety and peril .


Harmless, Julienne van Loon’s third book, is a short, tight novella that deals with humans on the fringe. It follows eight-year-old Amanda and Thai born Rattuwat as they cross the suburbs of Western Australia to visit Amanda’s father, Dave, in prison. The chapters alternate between different characters’ points of view, examining their personal journeys as well as their individual relationships with the mysterious Sua, Dave’s de facto Thai lover and Rattuwat’s daughter.

The novella is also a retelling of the Jātakas, a collection of stories concerning the previous incarnations of Buddha. However, although van Loon, a practising Buddhist, approaches the texts imaginatively, I found the overall plot strangely lacking in suspense. Van Loon never quite unpacks the psychology of her characters, propelling them on a physical journey but reserving the insight into their inner lives. They are contemplative but never fully reveal their motives, especially around a central, horrific event relating to Sua, nor do they spur into action. Dave, his daughter and father-in-law may be harmless to society at large, but with such subtle inner workings they are also at risk of being harmless to what’s inside themselves.

Regardless, Harmless is an admirable book. A portion of the royalties will be donated to the United Nations Refugee Agency, a charity that provides aid for displaced people around the world. More stories about the asylum-seeking experience are needed in this climate; I’m personally glad that van Loon’s is among them. Harmless is a love story and a road story, whose portrait of refugee life in Australia and abroad is complex and astute.

Nicole Lee is a writer and actor living in Melbourne.

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