Book Review: Southern Aurora by Mark Brandi

FIFTY+SA Arts Reviewer, Dave Bradley, reviews the unforgettable new novel, Southern Aurora, from award-winning author Mark Brandi.

The Melbourne-residing Brandi’s latest is another tale narrated by a kid, although as protagonist Jimmy is 12 here, he isn’t entirely naïve, and he can make some sense of the strange and scary behaviours of adults. Some.

More a character/family study than any kind of dark thriller, this demonstrates Brandi’s willingness to take his time setting up situations, and he allows Jimmy to really talk about his increasingly complicated life in Mittigunda back in 1986 (or so).

Our narrator lives on the poorest street in this fictional town (halfway between Melbourne and Sydney), and as he tries to look after his sometimes-fragile Mum Nicki and younger brother Sam (who has unspecified special needs), he fantasises about how great everything will be when his troubled older brother Mick gets out of jail. He hangs out with his bestie Danny at school and beyond, and is very fond of friendly senior Don, who wants to help the kid prepare for a forthcoming billycart race.

There’s a lot going on here, and yet it’s all subtle and cautiously revealed, as we wonder what exactly the true crux of the tale will be. Jimmy and Danny start spending time with rich kid Chadwick, who threatens their closeness, but that’s rather less important than Jimmy’s realisation that his Mum is growing too reliant on ‘The Kaiser’ (as in Stuhl). And yet, unusually late in the narrative, it becomes apparent that the real danger here is Charlie, a Vietnam veteran (only vaguely mentioned) who’s in an on-off relationship with Nicki, and is becoming violent and unpredictable.

All of this detail is often bewildering to Jimmy, who struggles to think like an adult when those around him tend not to. But it’s difficult: he can’t understand why grown-ups lie about their feelings, why anyone would want to hurt his Mum, why people are mean to Sam, why, why, why.

Intimate and tender without any real whiff of sexuality (Jimmy’s too young for that, although he won’t be for long), this is also full of ‘80s flashbacks: a Dolly Parton tune plays on a crackly car radio; Jimmy rewatches Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom; and there’s a tense and uneasy scene that takes place during a viewing of TV’s It’s A Knockout.

And yes, that show certainly used to have negative effects on many families.

Hachette Australia, RRP $32.99

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