Better Son
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Better Son

Katherine Johnson

1952. Tasmania. The green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside - a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania - an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father - until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, nine-year-old Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Fifty years later, Kip - now an award-winning scientist - has a young son of his own, but cannot look at him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to set things right. To have a second chance. To be the father he never had.

The Better Son is a richly imaginative and universal story about the danger of secrets, the beauty in forgiveness and the enthralling power of Tasmania’s unique natural landscapes.


Katherine Johnson’s debut novel Pescador’s Wake was highly praised, and her original, descriptive language made her an Australian writer to watch. While Pescador’s Wake was set on the rough seas of the far Southern Ocean, Johnson has chosen another intimidating landscape for her second novel – the labyrinth of underground caves in rural Tasmania.

The Better Son is the story of two brothers: younger, sensitive Kip, and Tommy, a daredevil who is favoured by their abusive, alcoholic father. Set in 1952, Harold is not long back from the war, and has brought back many secrets and resentments. Harold has high hopes for Tommy, and states that Tommy will become a doctor, but he sees no good in Kip, despite Kip’s hard work at the family dairy. Jess, their mother, tries to protect her younger son, but she is bound to Harold in ways the reader doesn’t understand until later in the book.

When Kip and Tommy discover an entrance to the underground cave system near their home, they explore their new underground playground at every opportunity. Despite being forbidden to play there, it becomes a haven for them away from the farm, until one day Tommy stirs up a rockslide and disappears from sight. Terrified, nine-year-old Kip tells the search party that Tommy is lost in the forest. This lie and its consequences haunt him for the next fifty years.

The novel is narrated by Kip, and the farmhand, Squid, who remains on the farm. We next meet the characters in 2002, when Kip realises his secret is jeopardising his marriage and relationship with his own son, and returns to make amends.

The Better Son contains many beautiful images, and explores the emotional legacy of parental abuse. It is a good choice for book groups, and fans of Tony Birch’s novels.

Annie Condon is a bookseller at Readings Hawthorn.

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