The Young Desire It by Kenneth Mackenzie
The Young Desire It was awarded the ALS Gold Medal in 1937, when the author was only 24. This extraordinary book, like many first novels, is largely autobiographical – the defining years of protagonist Charles Fox are simply crafted in terms of plot and structure (this is a coming-of-age story, set in an all-male boarding school in 1920s rural Western Australia) – but Kenneth Mackenzie’s apprenticeship novel is astonishing in terms of characterisation, language, its depiction of the natural world and, especially, in terms of a felt or lived narrative.
The third-person narrator’s voice has – for the most part – been assimilated into Charles’s viewpoint. As he has lived his first 14 years in the sole company of his mother, free to roam the property, Charles has developed into a sensitive young man attune to the caprices of the natural landscape. This voice, then, with its deeply interior perspective, leads us, poetically and astoundingly, deeper into the experience: of growing up, of sexual awakening, of the natural world, of fear and of knowledge.
The language throughout is extraordinary. It’s not an entirely easy read: the tone and pace is unmodulated, with no markers to identify perspective changes or highlight plot points. But the result is a rolling swell of remarkable turns of phrase, odd constructions, unusual language, and a narrative that builds upon itself until the prose experience engulfs you.
The Young Desire It will ask you – many times – to pause in your reading. Innumerable passages stand out and ask something (a step sideways, an interior movement, another read). My personal favourite: ‘And the gates swallowed them, like the blind open jaws of a dead shark, sinister and smally cathedraline.’
If words, cadence and language are your thing, read this book – Mackenzie has rendered it an astonishing experience.
Ed Moreno works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.