The Danger Game

Kalinda Ashton

The Danger Game
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The Danger Game

Kalinda Ashton

Alice and Louise are sisters united by a distant tragedy - the house fire their brother lit and burnt to death in, fourteen years ago. Alice teaches dirt-poor students at a state high school that the government wants to close, and she pursues an episodic, estranged relationship with a married man. Louise, a habitual liar and recovering heroin addict, has been playing `the danger game' since she was a child, and she can’t stop. But when Louise decides to unravel the truth about her twin brother’s death, and seeks out the mother that abandoned her as a ten-year-old, everything changes. With preoccupations reminiscent of Elliot Perlman, The Danger Game is a work of literary realism, told through three voices in a pared-back style laced with black humour. The Danger Game is at once unsentimental account of deprivation and resistance, and a critique of the human cost of untrammelled economic rationalism. This is a novel about damage: the damage we do to each other and the damage the world can do to us. Jon smiled, puzzled. `You make it sound like old-fashionedclass war.‘I was trembling. He put his hand on my arm. `If the kids are clever they’ll stillfind a way through. Look at you.’ A review from Australian Bookseller and Publisher'While big Australian publishers are busy fighting each other with vampires and gangsters, small presses are quietly putting out some of the most impressive literary fiction of recent years. Melbourne-based Sleepers Publishing have uncovered a writer of exceptional skill and poise, whose debut novel is as outstanding an example of a contemporary realist narrative as you?re likely to find. With echoes of Australian literary heavyweights such as Elliot Perlman or Anson Cameron, Ashton’s story deftly explores the psychological damage of unspoken family history. Told through the eyes of three siblings, Alice, Louise and Jeremy Reilly, and moving in two time-frames, this novel tells the story of a family both united and broken by the distant tragedy of Jeremy’s death. Alice, the older sister, reconciles her nearly puritan life as a teacher in a dirt-poor school with a doomed relationship with a married man, while Louise struggles to stay afloat as a recovering drug addict. What unites them both is Jeremy?s story, and the ‘danger game’, a childhood tradition and eerie cadence for the rest of their lives. Like Christos Tsiolkas' The Slap (but without the forced social overlay), Ashton allows us to understand the extraordinary importance of ordinary lives.‘

Review

Hetay angerday amegay chant three young siblings, and so they should. For pig latin always warns of dangers unknown. Jeremy, his older sister Alice, and his twin Louise are cast together in a house, a family that is ravaged by the ‘corrosive dread of debt and humiliation’. The danger game is a dare, a chance to overcome their fears, but all the while holding a deeper pathos. It’s clear that this was never to be a story of child’s play.

Three narrative voices pivot between the day of ten-year-old Jeremy’s death and the present, fifteen years later. Alice is on the cusp of her thirties, a schoolteacher and adultress. Used to being unloved her voice traverses between a state of indifference and outright drollness. Hers is the most authorial because of its first person intimacy, but her centrality is swayed by her sister’s furious tenderness. Louise’s second person narration brims with energy, emotion and little restraint. Kicking her love affair with heroin, she is a superb liar living in a whirlpool of the subconscious at full throttle. They are living in different tangents, but bound together largely through the death of their brother. And it’s he who we cry for. Jeremy is a boy wonder. A genius reared in poverty and squalor. Told through the third person lens of an unassuming, naïve child, his last day alive brings us into a powerful orbit where we marvel at how this novel is delicately woven.

While the story is finely plotted around the mystery of Jeremy’s death, the novel’s rictus holds much more. It is earnest in ambition and unflinching on the ground. History, the past, remembering and storytelling become integral to how Ashton tackles poverty and politics, because this book is essentially about fate, and how – or indeed if – it can be altered. You can’t help but feel a shift in the world-weariness of playing the ‘cards you’re given’, just as the siblings’ father concluded. His ‘gnomic wisdom too bleak’ for Alice, she recognises the lethargy of our generation, so unlike a time such as the sixties where ‘surviving meant resisting’. Through what she perceives to be her maturation from playing games of chance to those of control, she’s accused of making things ‘sound like an old-fashioned class war’. In an attempt to link ideas of justice with those of racism in Australia, her class responds with an eagerness for riots, yet resignation of defeat: Aboriginal people are ‘fucked, they should get used to it.’ The irony is that because Alice lacks ‘the courage or the hopefulness to imagine an alternative’ she epitomises the very characteristics her friend Sarah so despises in Alice’s lovers, those dripping with the ‘existential angst of the middle classes’. How she breaks that mould, and Sarah’s role in aiding such a transformation is beguiling.

Ashton is not only erudite in capturing the injustices of contemporary society, but also in hinting at the fatalistic ennui of this generation – especially those who grow up with ‘private schools, quick minds, full employment and sensible investments.’ As much as we think it is a ‘rigged game, a shitty system’, the possibility for defiance and imagination is very real. The refreshing thing is that it is said with no pussy-footing or sentimentality. Living is brutal in Ashton’s world and the sharp prose indicates this. In many ways the tacitness of the book is deeply Melbourne. It doesn’t matter whether we sit in St Kilda where a palimpsest of old stories lingers, or Brunswick, ‘where the past is gone, even while it bites at your skin and bleeds in your eyes’. What matters most is how well we walk through the fire.

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