University of Queensland Press, 2019
Available at independent bookstores and online sellers
This is David Burton’s debut novel, billed as young adult fiction and with two teenage boys, Shaun and Will, as the main protagonists, but an entertaining, fast-paced and thought-provoking read for adults (certainly for this one).
David Burton has previously written 30 professionally produced theatrical works and has directed productions for the Queensland Music Festival. His memoir How to be Happy won Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing in 2014.
Set in a small outback mining town where FIFO workers are now the norm, The Man in the Water follows the golden rule of crime fiction by giving us a body in the first few pages. The quest to unravel the mystery of this death, including the disappearance of said body immediately after Shaun reports it to police, is the plot driver. Burton leads us ably on the twisting path and red herring diversions we need to sustain a page-turning narrative. It is, however, the nature of teenage boys and the specific relationships explored in this book that especially held my attention.
David Burton skilfully puts us in the mind of the adolescent. We see so well how he is thinking, how he works his way through problems, his misconceptions, his list of suspects. We understand his bolting reflex, his fiery accusations, his mistrust in authority. But we also see another youthful perspective through the eyes of his friend, Will, who is the same age but thinks differently from Shaun and solves problems differently too. Culture plays some part in this.
At the same time, we also watch from above as knowing adults – this is very clever writing.
For the adolescent (especially male) reader, whom Dave Burton especially wishes to enthuse about the reading process) there is plenty of action – filmic heroics, Bondian sneaking about and nail-biting bits, plenty of tension. There is also humour, sometimes because we know more than Shaun and sometimes because teenage boys are just humorous creatures.
Shaun’s relationships are well drawn throughout the novel – his missing father, his mother, Megan, Will, Mr Tenner (his English teacher), the police. We probably recall ourselves the awkwardness of those poolside meetings, the discomfort of being invited for tea (dinner), the thrill of a trip to the big city (Brisbane), the habitual rituals of friendship. There is some growing up done through the course of this story: some resolutions of long held pain and some cementing of long held friendship and love.
The writing style will appeal to the young adult reader. It also appeals to me. It is natural in tone, unpretentious, bent on progressing the action, spoken with a teenaged voice, seen with a teenaged eye, uncluttered but finessed nevertheless. Burton’s lovely description of a young father in the swimming pool exemplifies this:
In a corner of the pool was a young father with a baby. He was holding the kid round the middle, bobbing it in and out of the water. The baby was tiny and little more than a round bubble of flesh. But with each dip, it giggled loudly enough to be heard right across the pool.’
I am a mother of two grown-up sons – this author writes boys with respect, a keen eye and compassionate heart.