Random House AU
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Noah Daniels is an 11 year old boy who has big dreams. His father bought him a telescope and now Noah’s greatest ambition is to become an astronaut and go into space. At school Noah is a bit of a loner, he doesn’t have many friends but you don’t need friends to see the stars. He lost his father two years ago and still grieves the loss very deeply. One night when Noah is walking home alone, he witnesses something horrific.
Noah’s mother Kate reminisces about her time in Australia 12 years ago, holidaying on the northern beaches of Sydney. It’s where she met Rich, Noah’s father and her memories all revolve around their time together there and their days at the beach, swimming in the ocean and playing on the sand. She deeply regrets moving the family back to London when Rich got a job offer and despite the fact that it’s Rich that was the Australian, now that he’s gone there’s nothing to stop her from moving back there and taking Noah with her.
Matthew Hooper is a year above Noah in school. The two have rarely, if ever crossed paths before. Matthew spends most of his time attempting to stay out of the way of his older brother, who looks to be getting more and more dangerous and violent. A chance sighting of his brother one night in the kitchen lets Matthew in on a terrible secret, one he didn’t wish that he knew. His only option now for self-preservation is to make sure no one else finds out what he knows.
Malcolm Martin lost his only son Bob many years ago but it’s a loss that has never left him. His life has spiraled out of control since Bob drowned – he lost his marriage and his home. He spends his days saving his pennies for the bottle of wine that will take him to oblivion, where there’s no pain and there are no memories. He’s a sitting duck for a psychopath.
Burned is the first novel from Australian author Persephone Nicholas and was the winning entry in the 2013 National Seniors Literary Prize, which is for novelists aged 50 and over. It’s described as being for fans of Jodi Picoult and Caroline Overington and delves deep into its characters, right to the core. Several of the narrators are children, the others adult and I think that this a beautiful blend.
In the present day, a homeless man is brutally set on fire simply for the thrill of watching him burn. Young Noah comes along at an opportune moment, causing the culprits to flee but possibly painting himself as a suspect in the first place. It’s an horrific thing for a young child to realise, that the pile of what looks like rags burning is in fact a real living person. The story of Malcolm was extremely brief but it was incredibly heartbreaking. Nicholas managed to capture such catastrophic grief, a soul-destroying loss that had in the end, not only contributed to Malcolm losing his wife, becoming homeless and caring little for anything except the oblivion he got through cheap bottles of red wine but in the end also managed to take his life, in a way. He was a victim in many ways, probably failed in many ways too.
The book jumps back and forward in time – Kate, Noah’s mother relives her time in Australia, her meeting Rich (Noah’s father) and becoming pregnant, etc. There are passages that describe when Noah was 9 and lost his father, who died whilst on an overseas holiday. At times this was just a little bit confusing, because I’d be engrossed in one time period and then find myself jerked out of it and into another. However, it was great to see portions of Kate’s earlier life in Australia although I think I would’ve liked more about the disintegration of her marriage to Rich. That was more skimmed over, and I think I’d also have liked Noah’s perspective on his parents together and apart. Kids are very observant!
Throughout the novel I was conflicted on whether or not to feel sorry for Matthew Hooper, younger brother of Tom who shows every indication of becoming an extremely dangerous human being. At first portrayal, Matthew seems quiet, unassuming, desperate to keep out of the way of his bully older brother. But as the novel progresses, Matthew lashes out himself, bullies others and seems determined to keep the secret he has discovered out of self-preservation. He clearly fears his brother and rightfully so. But the secret keeping obviously doesn’t sit well with him, it seems to alter his character – or is he becoming desensitized to violence? He sees it and experiences it and he has an older brother who so clearly enjoys it. Matthew’s decision to keep Tom’s secret made him accessory to the fact and the lack of ability to sympathise with the victim was very disturbing. Matthew was 11 or 12, at an age where he should be able to express this, but his horror never showed through. All he thought about was himself and he seemed willing at a later date to put others within the line of fire. It did raise a bit of a nature vs nurture debate in my head as I was reading it. Matthew and Tom’s parents seem oblivious to Tom’s actions and aren’t aware of where he is most of the time. We didn’t get a decent enough glimpse into his home life to see what it was truly like though, which I would’ve enjoyed. A chapter or two from their points of view, rather than the brief few paragraphs devoted to their mother late in the book, would’ve greatly enhanced this novel I believe.
Burned is a very thorough debut that displays a real gift in understanding and depicting human nature, from the downright ugly to the beautiful. It’s a novel that will move you and grip you and leave you wanting more.
Book #170 of 2013
Burned is the 72nd novel read and reviewed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2013