August 2010

Arts & Letters

‘Rocks in the Belly’ by Jon Bauer

By Brenda Walker
'Rocks in the Belly' by Jon Bauer, Scribe, 304pp; $32.95

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.

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