The Danger Game: Kalinda Ashton

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.