There’s something about Queensland. Thea Astley, Andrew McGahan, Matthew Condon – for a state widely regarded as a cultural backwater, it’s a surprisingly fertile breeding ground for talented writers. This is not being helped by the new Premier, but I digress. Maybe it’s the sense of isolation between those small Queensland towns. Maybe it’s the strange conservative nature of many Queenslanders. Who knows. Whatever it is, it’s intriguing.
In the tiny town of Mary Smokes, a group of young men steal horses to resell them. One of them is Grey North, a young man who’s mother died giving birth to his younger sister, who’s father is a good-for-nothing drunk. His younger sister, Irene, idolises him, following him everywhere he goes. As they grow up, their relationship takes on new and unusual facets not even they could have foreseen. This is a novel of small town Australia, of the people that inhabit them, and what happens at night.
Grey’s family is one tragedy after another. His mother died giving birth to his younger sister, his father is a drunk – and that’s it. It falls to a young Grey to look after his even younger sister, and as a result, he becomes overly protective of her, and she becomes deeply reliant on him. Grey will do anything to protect his little sister, while she will follow him around everywhere he goes, even if this means out into the bush. It will come, I suspect, as little surprise, that Grey’s own feelings towards his sister slowly become more and more confused as she matures and turns into a young woman. The slowly dawning realisation that he is no longer the only man in her life upsets Grey’s view of life, and he inevitably lashes out. Fortunately, he doesn’t do anything too ridiculous – though the sexual assault of your younger sister is nothing to forget. I suppose we can be thankful for small mercies that he realises what he is doing before it gets really bad.
I spoke a little while ago about the way in which Paul Carter detailed a way in which young Australian men grew up, and how the teenage years are so formative for a person’s future life. Holland is doing the same thing here, but I think perhaps to more effect. He races through the early years, and Grey’s falling in with the wrong crowd is clear and easy to understand. In contrast to Carter, though, Holland skips the whiny angsty teenage years, landing up firmly in the early twenties, Grey’s life already ruined. This allows him to examine and explore what life is like for a high school drop out with no ambition in a tiny town in rural Queensland. As tends to be the case, Grey and his friends resort to petty crime, making money from dead end jobs in highway petrol stations, and chasing the few girls left in town.
There’s a bit in Casino Royale when M turns to Bond and says that “arrogance and self-awareness seldom go hand in hand.” I’m about to make a really big leap here, but follow if you can. I don’t think Grey is arrogant in the traditional sense, but I do think he has spent a lot of his youth being blissfully unaware of the consequences of his life choices, whether that be stealing horses or whatever. In some ways, I suppose, that is the arrogance of youth. But in the final chapters, as he begins to, well, grow up, and become more aware of his surroundings and his own position within those surroundings, he also becomes aware of his own failings in looking after himself and looking after his younger sister.
Spoilers abound for anyone who hasn’t read this. The finale is gut-wrenchingly sad. In the truly classical sense, this is a tragedy. Just as Grey finds an out – the girl he’s been sleeping with has decided to move to Brisbane, and he’s happy to follow – Irene is killed. It’s a random, senseless act of violence, and despite the undercurrent of danger and despair running through the novel, this is the first time it spills over into Grey’s family. Holland leaves the consequences of this horrific act unsaid, but there are signs of depression in Grey’s reactions, and it does not feel like it is going to be the fairy tale ending Grey was hoping for.
I really enjoyed The Mary Smokes Boys. I know it’s unfair to compare this with Carter’s debut novel, but since I read them at the same time, and they share similar themes, it’s all connecting in my head. Holland paints a beautifully bleak portrait of two young people left with no parents, and how they learn to survive in a world with absolutely no hope at all. I look forward to other stories from Patrick Holland.
Oh, and Mary Smokes is a real place.