Ironbark by Jay Carmichael

While it feels like a cliché to call a novel – especially one by a first-time author – ‘assured’, it is the phrase I kept returning to while reading this debut offering from young Victorian writer Jay Carmichael. His clean and polished prose possesses the kind of confidence that puts readers at ease.

Ironbark is a quiet coming-of-age story set in the country town of Narioka. Semi-unemployed and drowning in the aftermath of his friend Grayson’s death, Markus’s life is filled with a low-grade sense of dread. We follow him through his days – feeling uncomfortable at social events, failing at the apprenticeship his father has forced on him, not really wanting to play football but doing it anyway, and jamming needles into his legs in order to try to feel something.

The portrayal of Markus’s homosexuality, and the way in which it is navigated by those around him, is one of the novel’s strongest elements. Carmichael has taken care to render his characters as believable, and he’s neither condescending nor nasty in depicting their flaws. The book is better for it.

The other strength is in what Carmichael chooses to withhold. When Markus is coerced into playing in a charity football match to raise money for the family of his dead friend – a death, we learn, that has more to it than first appears – we’re shown the build-up in detail, but then just a flash of the game itself before we’re thrown back into the claustrophobia of Markus’s everyday life. The effect is that the reader feels as trapped as Markus does.

Carmichael plays with the structure in other ways, too. The main narrative in parcelled out in moments, and the reader ultimately moves backwards through time. While the oppressive small town is a mainstay of Australian fiction, Ironbark is a poised and atmospheric work that reveals Carmichael as an author to watch.

Chris Somerville is part of the online Readings team.

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Jay Carmichael

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