by Annie Condon
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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