February 2009

Arts & Letters

Unhappy families

By Craig Sherborne
Sonya Hartnett’s ‘Butterfly’

If we didn’t have childhoods we’d be much better people. We’d start out as grown-ups innocent as lambs. We wouldn’t have behind us all those early years of practising vices: greed, duplicity, cruelty, bullying, indolence, vandalism, bullshitting, cronyism, hypocrisy, selfishness, violence. Childhood is where we hone our skill for these. If by age 14 we haven’t learned how to manipulate our loved ones, we’re backward and doomed to live at the mercy of others. Parents, siblings, schoolmates, schoolteachers – there’s always one teacher we’ve got a crush on and torture with flirting – are the toy soldiers with which we practise emotional warfare.

We learn embarrassment as teenagers – how sharply it can drill through our fragile ego, shatter it for a lifetime or a day, depending on the robustness of our feelings’ immune system. One mean, rejecting word from a popular peer and friendship is forever feared. Without childhood, we’d have only ourselves to blame for our failings. Without childhood, there’d be nothing to spend our adult years trying to avenge. Ironically, childhood is also where we return when we’re old and demented, though we’re not honing anything anymore, just looking for our favourite dolls or cricket bats to cuddle. Childhood leaves that special humiliation till last for us – the pitiful emptiness of memory that we try to fill with kiddie kitsch.

Sonya Hartnett is a splendid writer on childhood. Her work is often classed as young-adult fiction. I wouldn’t know if that’s an accurate moniker or not. I’ve never read that kind of book – never did. The moniker sounded too patronising to me. Too much like getting a book doctored to make it easier for less learned readers – hardly a way to make them more learned.

Hartnett’s great setting is the scuffed rehearsal room of our youth. She leads us in there with a deceptively gentle voice, beautifully cadenced. She uses vigorous verbs and adverbs. She strings rhythmic adjectives together. The writing flows. She is adept at creating poetic phrasing, the kind that at first sight seems overbalanced with quirkiness and makes you stop reading to judge a metaphor’s efficacy before taking pleasure in it: “She drags out her voice like a grimy cloth”; “The many legs of coral shrimp flail like cut kite strings.”

She makes clear hand-gestures of narrative, leads you down straightforward passages of eventfulness. This gives the book the feel of a well-laid-out short story that has far too much to say and show to be a mere 20 pages. Then Hartnett closes the rehearsal-room door behind us. We are locked in to a disturbing milieu, as in her latest book, Butterfly (Hamish Hamilton, 224pp; $29.95). Here we are left to roam about in the life of a girl called Plum and her rather banal family, at the start of the 1980s.

The seething banality of family life is a recurring sub-theme in Hartnett’s work. Not the dark side of life, as cliché-peddlers of the media are fond of saying about anything that isn’t upbeat. In Butterfly, Plum’s mother bitches about not getting enough respect – a perennial pastime in families. Her brother Cydar has the epiphany: “Everyone in his family is sad. Mums and Fa, living lives that never managed to rise above the ordinary. Plum and Justin [Plum’s other brother], aware of the peril, but neither of them clever enough to avoid a similar fate.”

Our society insists that family values comprise the moral code we must aspire to have shape our lives, our unofficial Constitution, our credo. The average Australian is cast as the gatekeeper of this code. But as F Scott Fitzgerald wrote: “When I hear a man proclaiming himself an ‘average, honest, open fellow’, I feel pretty sure that he has some definite and perhaps terrible abnormality which he has agreed to conceal.” People are concealers. Families are concealers. Rent the veil and you can bet some family member is getting up to no good, letting their tribe down in some petty or crashing way. It doesn’t take much to fracture the family unit and expose the lie of complacent familial harmony – disconnectedness where reliable bonds had been taken for granted.

In Butterfly, Hartnett presents the simple story of Justin’s secret affair with a married neighbour, Maureen, a character more dramatic device than fully sketched yearner for a better life, a better man. Though one of the best passages of wise observation is credited to her: “there’s a hollowness at the core of his family, a fear of discovering what it is that turns inside the hearts of one another – and that they know about this failing, and are ashamed.”

Plum is nature’s own spotty, fatty, self-hating 14-year-old: “Her mother calls dinner from downstairs, and Plum hears the word like a dog hears walk.” She is meekly desperate for her friends’ approval, and her brothers’ affection and guidance. The friends are catty, maliciously gossipy girls well on their way to becoming the fully formed adults bickering at the dinner parties of today: “Samantha is a passer-of-notes, a whisperer-in-corners, a giggler-behind-hands, an exchanger of meaningful looks, the kind of person who should by rights be ostracised and spurned; yet it’s Samantha whom they all battle to impress.”

Hartnett also reminds us of the heaven of youth: the blissful vitality it gifts some of us before the daily plod of grown-up work dulls our senses, the elastin seeps from our faces, and we start families of our own to continue the cycle. Youth that can stretch out well into our twenties, if we’re lucky: “Justin is twenty-four years old: the world will never be more suited to him than it is now, he will never feel more embraced by life or have greater faith in his right to exist. The earth and the oxygen, the cities and lights, the nights and the beaches seem created for him and for those like him.”

Plum is no Justin, never will be. She is too insular, too unattractive to have such a sure sense of entitlement. She collects souvenirs, small talismans, like an inanimate family she has created for her own private parade: a pendant, a yoyo, a coin, an ABBA badge. This family of things, it turns out, is also a family about to break.

I don’t know if Butterfly is better than other books by Hartnett. At this stage in the post-reading process I don’t even view it as another book by this author, but another chapter in the one great book she is writing: the recurring themes, mood and tone, the same character types.

Hartnett is one of those hedgehog writers the theorist Isaiah Berlin talked about. Writers fall into two categories, he reckoned: hedgehogs and foxes. Foxes have many ideas, many visions to explore. Their sympathies and styles may change wildly from book to book. James Joyce is a perfect example. The hedgehogs hunker down to write about the one vision they have of the world. Their work is the unpeeling of every layer of that vision. No matter how many books they write, that single vision remains constant.

Butterfly doesn’t have the obvious savagery of some of Sonya Hartnett’s earlier books, such as Surrender or Of a Boy. But that’s not the layer of her vision being explored here. Seething banality has its own savagery – it is a quiet dissembler. Such is the quality of Hartnett’s prose, it wouldn’t surprise me if in six months or six years a paragraph from Butterfly pops in to my head to chime with an element of real-life experience. That happened recently with her Surrender as I visited someone in hospital. I had not thought about the book since reading it two years ago. But a memory of Surrender’s beautiful opening few pages about dying floated through my mind. “Water comes to me on a sponge. I must lift my arms, shift my heels, lower my flaming eyes. I must smell pink, antiseptic.” A perfectly placed comma that transforms an ordinary old colour into a dreaded object. Typical Hartnett.

Craig Sherborne

Craig Sherborne is the author of the highly acclaimed memoir Hoi Polloi, and its sequel Muck, which won the Queensland Literary Award for Non-Fiction. He has written two volumes of poetry, Bullion and Necessary Evil, and two novels, The Amateur Science of Love and Tree Palace.

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