Hachette, Australia, 2023
Cover design Christabella Designs
Cover photographs courtesy of Trevillion
This is beautiful and deeply affecting book, the voice and point of view of Jimmy, its 11 year old boy hero, perfectly captured.
Jimmy is a lad with the weight of the world on his shoulders. He lives on the wrong side of the tracks in small town Mittigunda in the 1980s; his big brother Mick is in and out of jail; his younger brother Sam is disabled, and his mother is a functioning alcoholic dependent on regular doses of the Kaiser (Kaiser Stuhl).
Her new boyfriend Charlie (apparently a Vietnam vet.) is unpredictable and physically abusive; his friendship group is limited and becomes vulnerable as the story progresses; he’s no good at sports; his family circumstances are hand to mouth.
Despite all this, or perhaps because of it, Jimmy feels a deep sense of responsibility for his family. He takes on the role of man of the house in many ways, though never having known what his father. He is also always grateful for the least good thing and always optimistic of better times, despite all indications to the contrary.
Jimmy’s tentative and brief friendship with Chadwick gives him a glimpse into life on the other side of the tracks. The family is well off and Chadwick has everything a young boy dreams of – a pool, the latest technology and games, material comfort. Mrs Chadwick is kind and gentle and looks after both Jimmy and Sam when the boys visit Chadwick’s house along with fickle friend Danny.
The announcement of a big billy cart race at school seems to bring the possibility of a rise in fortunes. Jimmy gets out an old billy cart that Mick has made and accepts help from bus driver Don; he’s a father/grandfather figure who knows the family of old and takes a kindly interest in their welfare.
Unfortunately, there’s a moral dilemma when Chadwick produces a much more flash billy cart and Jimmy has to confess that they’ll be racing in the souped-up machine rather than the one he and Don have been meticulously restoring.
It’s just one of Jimmy’s life dilemmas so insightfully recounted by Mark Brandi. We feel for Jimmy as he grapples with all the issues that loom large for an eleven-year-old along with the difficulties of his troubled domestic situation.
The five shining lights in Jimmy’s life are his Nan who understands his situation and is always ready to chat; his Aunty Pam who lends practical help and gives good advice to Jimmy’s mum; Mrs Bon the librarian who provides sanctuary when he needs to avoid the cruelty of the other kids; Don, the grandfatherly figure who teaches him patience and care, takes time to be with him as mentor and comes up with the goods when protection is needed.
Then there’s the wonderful sports teacher Mr Battista who delivers the sage advice that there is more to life than the school, the town and Jimmy’s current prospects. He assures Jimmy that things will get better – and they do.
This conversation stays with the reader. It is a perceptive piece of writing that allows us at once to see things with our adult knowing and Jimmy’s child’s eyes. In fact, so skilfully does Mark Brandi write this story that this is always the case. We always see the world through Jimmy’s eyes whilst ominisciently knowing much more. This is one of the things that makes the book so moving. We ache for Jimmy and his big heart.
The shining Southern Aurora that speeds through town taking people to brighter lights and brighter lives is a leitmotif, and an apposite metaphor for Jimmy’s life. Reality does fall short of our expectations at times, as it does in this story, but not entirely and not crushingly so. The train retains its gloss and so does Jimmy’s life.
The book provides a rich view of its time and place. The author has included numerous anchoring references – to cars, which almost become people’s identities, to music, to films and TV shows, to food and to the mores of the 1980s.
It’s a delicately woven piece which wholly held this reader through its compassionate telling and deftly constructed book people. With this novel, Mark Brandi proves himself a master raconteur, in a work characterised by gentle humour, perceptiveness and kindness.
Thank you to Hachette for my review copy and to Mark Brandi for speaking with me about a childhood in the 80s and about this deeply affecting novel.