The Sunday salon: A book review, belated thanks and the best choc-chip cookie recipe EVER!

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I’m afraid I’ve lost my blogging mojo of late, which isn’t entirely bad given I’ve had more time to read as a result. Undoubtedly, the best thing I’ve read since I last posted is the novel Of a boy (aka What the birds see) by Sonya Hartnett, an acclaimed Australian author who I’m now glad to say won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2008.

Of a boy is set in 1977 in a suburban Australia where “three children bought no ice-cream, did not return home” (in the novel the Metfords, based of course on the Beaumonts). It relates the quiet life of Adrian, a nine-year-old boy living with his gran and uncle Rory, a boy who:

“isn’t particularly gifted at anything except art: the other kids gather admiringly round his desk during the once-weekly afternoon sessions when they’re allowed to paint and draw. Aside from this, he goes more or less ignored. He doesn’t mind that- he prefers to be overlooked. He is bashful, and rarely puts up his hand: if he knows an answer. he generally keeps it to himself. He isn’t boisterous, he can’t run fast, he is hopelessly uncoordinated. He sometimes joins the boys playing football at lunchtime on the broken asphalt, but he isn’t a skilful player. When the captains pick their team from the mob, first one boy choosing and then the other, Adrian is unfailingly one of the last to be selected, left waiting with the fat boy and the immigrant. Adrian is the runt. But he takes the humiliation in good stead, and always feels a squeeze of pleasure when his name is finally called.”

You slowly get to know Adrian as his life unfolds one day at a time, with Hartnett creating a strikingly convincing child narrator who wants a slinkee, has many worries (including sea monsters) and is aching lonely. That is, until he meets and befriends his new neighbours, Nicole, Joely and Giles.

Hartnett herself was nine in 1977, which obviously helped her get the the context right. What is more impressive is her creation of authentic childhood moments which gave me a jolt of recognition when I read them, caused a half-stifled exclaimation of But how did she know? For example, those days when as a child you couldn’t seem to stay out of trouble: (It’s a L-O-N-G passage, but it makes the point, so indulge me.)

“As soon as he lifts her (a Royal Doulton figurine) off the mantle, she slithers like an eel from his hands. There’s something sly and traitorous in the way she shatters to pieces on the bricks of the hearth. There is a shriek behind him- a bloodcurdling scream, really. He hears cutlery dropped and the glass door flung back and as he feels his grandmother bearing down like a train he crosses himself superstitiously, awaiting the sting of the slap.

She’s still furious the next morning, and Adrian can’t find his school shoe. He has hobbled about all morning, searching frantically. When Gran’s reversing the tank down the drive Adrian is underneath his bed, scouting the dustiest shadows. The first time she blares the horn, a squeak of dismay escapes him. The second time, frustrated tears fill his eyes. He runs lopsidedly to the den, although he’s already looked there. His grandmother leans on the horn as he crouches on the carpet, cheeks scorching, unable to think. He faces the prospect of wearing his sneakers- perhaps his slippers- to school, when anything but black lace-ups is strictly forbidden. A salty tear slinks past his nose and he wretchedly smears it away. Suddenly, salvation: he remembers reading National Geographic in bed and, growing sleepy, dropping the magazine to the floor. He charges to his room, kicks Geographic aside, and there it is, the prodigal shoe.

In the car, driving to school, his grandmother doesn’t say anything, except to curse the traffic. Adrian cowers like a dog that’s been thoroughly thrashed. When he finally dares to glance at her, he sees she’s grown fins and horns, fangs and claws.

Things surely cannot get any worse, but that evening they do. His homework demands the use of black ink, so he goes to Rory’s bedroom to dig out a pen. He doesn’t like Rory’s bleak, odoriferous room and nor is he particularly welcome within it, so he hurries, eager to be out. Rory’s easel stands empty so there’s no reason for Adrian to think the spats of wayward paint on it should be wet- but some of them must be, for as he ducks by the easel a dab of British racing green touches the elbow of his jumper. His grandma nags him to change out of his uniform when he gets home from school, but Adrian is lazy and always reluctant to swap warm clothes for cold, so he disregards this decree when he can. Now there’s green paint on his school jumper and the jumper is new, not even one year old: his grandmother, already angry about Royal Doulton and the shoe, will certainly murder him.

He rummages through Rory’s painting stuff for a rag, dousing it with turpentine. He rubs the rag determinedly on the stain, and the wool of the jumper darkens and frays. The small green splat spreads to become a noticeably large teal smudge. Adrian gulps down air, mortified. He scuttles to the bathroom, hooking the latch through the eye. He wriggles from the jumper, which reeks of turpentine. He holds the sleeve under the hot tap, gouging soup through the wool. The soap foams and water spits, and the jumper’s sleeve is soaked: still the stain remains. The hot water burns him, the soap’s smell of flowers rises in the air. Adrian flops on a chair, weak with defeat and melancholy. ‘You dumb kid,’ Rory will chortle later; the boy’s grandmother will be less amused. To her, who grew up poor, the ruining of good clothes is tenfold more disgraceful than the manslaughter of a china girl: even though he doesn’t try, Gran says, ‘Don’t talk to me , Adrian, don’t say a word!’

That night he sleeps with his hands clasped between his knees, waking abruptly several times. He wonders what will become of him, a useless, hopeless boy.”

As the above extract suggests, there is a lot of sadness in this book, not always in the foreground but ever present, a part of everyone’s life including Adrian’s. With the context of the missing children, there is a growing sense of suspense (by the final pages, my stomach was knotted with dread) but when danger finally appears, it takes a shockingly unexpected form . I found what happened horribly convincing and admit I cried buckets. I will remember Adrian and Of a boy long after finishing it, and encourage anyone reading this to seek him and it out.

I’m now really looking forward to Hartnett’s latest novel Butterfly, which is awaiting me on the TBR shelf once I’ve regained some emotional equilibrium. I was also delighted to see in the program released yesterday that Hartnett will be part of the Sydney Writer’s Festival in May- definitely a must see for me.

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On another note, I want to say a belated thank you to seachanges for giving me a I heart your blog award a while back. Much appreciated, although I can’t pick just seven blogs to pass it on to. There’s a reason the posts in my bloglines account are longer than War and Peace after all.

Finally, one of my small pleasures is baking something sweet each weekend. This weekend I made these choc-chip cookies, which are so good I have to pass on the recipe. They apparently last a week, not something that will be tested in my household. It’s as if the cookie-monster in his pre “Cookies are a sometimes food” days has been to visit!

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