August 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Rocks in the Belly’ by Jon Bauer

By Brenda Walker

British–Australian writer Jon Bauer’s superb first novel Rocks in the Belly is a finely drawn vision of jealousy, resentment and self-vindication, revealing how this toxicity can flourish in childhood and develop in adult life. As a novel of childhood, it’s as good as MJ Hyland’s Carry Me Down, with a similar spare, clean style and an understanding of the way a child’s mind can move, continuously weighing his own place in a family situation. Rocks in the Belly takes us into the adult aftermath of a childhood marked by angry anxieties, but it gives us the convincing voice of the child as well.

Bauer’s narrator inhabits his boyhood room, once furnished innocuously with a bed, a cat, playthings, a sleeping bag and a window with a rain gauge. As the story progresses we discover the truth about his childhood: the cat was tortured, the sleeping bag was a dark lair, a Transformers toy was repeatedly shifted between its equally worrying manifestations of robot and monster, and the rain gauge was monitored as part of an urge to measure, which, in the family context, plays out as an almost imperial impulse to secretly observe, control and ultimately destroy.

Rocks in the Belly is about the direct and indirect annihilation of a family. An altruistic mother, blind to the serious consequences of the tensions in her household, fosters children from other, more visibly damaged homes. A kind and ineffectual father supports this. The hotly furious enemy of this fostering enterprise is the couple’s own son, expert in domestic needling – nasty asides over the cereal bowls – but also capable of far more extreme and dangerous acts of scarification.

The novel begins with this son, now an adult, coming home to his dying mother after years abroad, where he has been working as a prison guard. He’s a debased prodigal. He’s there, apparently, to care for his mother but he’s the very opposite of domestic help. He attacks a stranger. He vandalises a photographer’s studio and steals photographs of families he doesn’t know. He has an urgent sexual encounter with his mother’s palliative care nurse. The way he handles his mother’s body attracts the attention of the police.

These events are acutely balanced by a devastating backstory about the fate of Robert, the last child fostered by the family. Robert haunts the present and the past. The dying mother reaches for his name within her ruined cognition. The narrator, significantly unnamed, is obsessed with him. A further story of loss shadows the desire to foster: the mother mourns a dead child, the sibling the intensely solitary narrator lacks, and Robert, the final foster son, is identified with her lost boy.

Rocks in the Belly exposes a kind of domestic destructiveness that most of us find incomprehensible. The novel is deeply, traditionally invested in the workings of the family, and this is a family in a situation of illuminated extremity.

Brenda Walker

Brenda Walker is an Australian writer and a Winthrop Professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her memoir, Reading by Moonlight, was published in 2010.

'Rocks in the Belly' by Jon Bauer, Scribe, 304pp; $32.95
Cover: August 2010

August 2010

From the front page

Powerlessness

What can children before God learn about parenthood from the Psalms?

Image of Katy Gallagher

Power house

The COVID-19 Senate committee is set to have huge impact

Image of Stormzy

Grime boss: Stormzy

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Slow work

Neighbours and friends rebuilding communities after the bushfires


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Joe Lyons & Benito Mussolini

Parliament House, Canberra. © JJ Harrison

The hollowmen

'Brisbane' by Matthew Condon, UNSW Press, 312pp; $29.95

‘Brisbane’ by Matthew Condon

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

A man's not a camel


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Stormzy

Grime boss: Stormzy

The rapper and MC’s second album ‘Heavy Is the Head’ is another triumphant step bringing black British culture forward

Photograph of Tennant Creek Brio artists by Jesse Marlow / Institute

Desert bloom: The Tennant Creek Brio

The brazen art movement born out of the troubled legacies of substance abuse and dispossession

Cover of jenny Offill's ‘Weather’

Twilight knowing: Jenny Offill’s ‘Weather’

The American novelist brings literary fiction’s focus on the interior life to climate-change cataclysm

Image from ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

Properly British: Armando Iannucci’s ‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’

A multicultural vision underscores the acclaimed British satirist’s endearing Dickensian romp


More in Noted

Image of Eimear McBride's ‘Strange Hotel’

‘Strange Hotel’ by Eimear McBride

A woman unceasingly travels to contend with the inertia of grief, in the latest novel from the author of ‘A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing’

‘Actress’ by Anne Enright

In a theatre setting, the masterly Irish writer considers the melting, capricious line between the truth and the fake

Image from ‘Stateless’

‘Stateless’: ABC

A probing drama about Australia’s mandatory detention regime focuses on the dehumanisation experienced on both sides of the razor wire

Image of ‘The Bass Rock’

‘The Bass Rock’ by Evie Wyld

The Miles Franklin–winning author’s latest novel expands on her interest in the submission and consequential fury of women amid the impersonal natural world


Read on

Image of Max von Sydow in The Exorcist

Knight to rook 3

Remembering Max von Sydow, the greatest actor of his generation

House of brief

Limiting parliamentary sittings is limiting our democracy

Northern exposure

COVID-19 is turning Indigenous communities into a tinderbox

Image of Julian Assange

Viral injustice

Julian Assange’s extradition trial continues as an attack on journalism


×
×