REVIEW

Kate Ryan: In The Golden Book, a woman tries to make sense in a past disaster and the wildness of youth

Ali and Jessie are school friends, in their final year of primary school. Jessie has learning problems, cannot read beyond cat, dog, car, but is a bit of a tearaway, leading Ali in lots of dangerous escapades.

In the course of one of these adventures, she suffers an injury which leaves her completely incapacitated.

She lives for many years in a kind of half-life, in a wheelchair and unable to communicate, looked after by her mother Aggie, a former hippie and mother of three other children, all four by different fathers.

The story now moves forward many years, by which time Ali has had and left a marriage and has a daughter of her own who is being influenced into wildness by a child similar to Jessie from many years ago.

It is not clear where this is happening - Melbourne perhaps - but she flies to somewhere - Canberra? - and picks up a car to attend the funeral of Jessie who has died of pneumonia.

Here she meets the adults that she knew when they were all children.

It is difficult to say much more about the story, which goes backwards and forwards in time, leaving the reader more than a little confused.

At one stage, the adult Ali is part of a writing class somewhere; for an exercise she writes about her childhood, not changing the names of the characters. In fairness, there is a small change to the font, though it could easily be missed.

It is not clear whether this is the golden book of the title, because there is another book, a diary kept by the young Ali that is unkind to Jessie.

On the first page, we meet Cal, Matty, Jessie, Eli, Ali and Tim, a lot of names to become familiar with so soon. We are not told whether they are young or old, male or female, same or different family and it is many pages before we can work it out.

The setting at this stage is Bega, but later Ali will move to Sydney to attend university, determined to become a teacher. Here she meets and starts an affair with Eli from her childhood. Mention is made of some Melbourne suburbs, so it is possible that Ali is now living there.

We realise that in a modern novel, we have to be prepared for scene changes or time changes, though these are usually signalled. Here the change can happen in the middle of a paragraph with little consideration for the poor reader who is trying to make sense of what is happening.

By the time you get used to them, the story has lost meaning and the reader may find herself pushing to finish out of stubbornness rather than enjoyment.

Do publishers, one may be tempted to ask, have a responsibility to those who buy their books?

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This story Finding sense in disaster, one page at a time first appeared on The Canberra Times.