Much has been made of the glut of books that came out at the start of September in the northern hemisphere, but Australia had a similar event last week, with a sort of Super Tuesday. As a result, I had a few review copies drop through my letter book, and while I’m usually too busy with fiction in translation to get to them, one did catch my eye. It’s the first new book in over a decade by a well-known Australian author, and an engaging story about the growing pains of a young boy – and perhaps of a girl…
Jasper Jones was published back in 2009, and amazingly it’s taken Craig Silvey eleven years to follow up the succes of that book with another novel, Honeybee (review copy courtesy of Allen & Unwin). It’s the story of Sam Watson, a confused teenager who’s had enough of his life and is ready to put an end to it all. As the story begins, we find ourselves up on a bridge over a freeway, with Sam ready to jump, until we see another figure at the end of the bridge. This turns out to be Vic, an old man who had suicidal plans of his own…
Once the pair make it down from the bridge, an unlikely friendship forms between the struggling adolescent and the ageing widower. Bringing Sam back to his house, Vic allows his new friend some space to breathe, and the time to work out what to do next, but the teenager has a past, one that can’t be hidden from forever. Eventually, it’s time to go back, and when that happens, our friend must decide whether to conform to make a place for themself there or go their own way, perhaps losing someone close in the process.
Honeybee, at 420 pages, is a book I ripped through in a couple of days, a contemporary Australian coming-of-age story with a hero less ordinary. Silvey teases the reader for a few chapters, but eventually reveals that Sam is a boy who thinks he might not be:
I dressed up every night, and I did it for longer and longer. I didn’t sleep much. I felt dazed during the day, then at home I came alive. I was two separate people. I walked around my room in a slip dress or a maxi or a playsuit and pretended I was a person that everybody liked. I whispered imaginary conversations. I moved and spoke differently and I wasn’t afraid.
p.74 (Allen & Unwin, 2020)
As we learn more about his childhood from flashbacks (his long hair, ‘dress-ups’, watching Julia Childs videos on his iPad), what emerges is a portrait of a child with a dismal past, knowing he’s different and not having anyone to talk to about it. As he progresses from ‘borrowing’ the odd item from his mum to stealing women’s clothes and experimenting with make up, he’s always terrified he’ll be found out, and condemned.
Sam has good reason to be nervous. His mother, Sarah, has a disastrous personal life and eventually ends up with Steve, a dangerous man who has his heart set on making a man of Sam. As much as the boy needs to get out of there, he doesn’t want to leave his mother behind, either, even if the reader might think she’s beyond redemption, dependent both on her brutal partner and the drugs he provides.
The beauty of Honeybee, though, is the glimpses of another world Sam’s escape provides. There’s Aggie Meemeduma, the garrulous girl who befriends Sam when he temporarily moves in with Vic, and Peter, AKA Fella Bitzgerald, a caring nurse who transforms into a bulletproof drag queen by night. Wherever Sam turns, there are people willing to love him for who he, or she, is, ready to extend a helping hand – the problem is that he can’t quite bring himself to take it.
Of course, the heart of the novel is the relationship Sam strikes up with Vic. Both feel alone in the world, but their sudden chance encounter prevents them from leaving it. Vic is stuck in his life, unable to get over the loss of his wife, Edie:
“She died six years ago. When you’re a young bloke, you think about your life in terms of possibilities. The job you’ll have, the man you’ll be, places you’ll go. But when you get older, the way you think changes. You think about the stuff you’ve done, how you’ve done it, where you’ve gone. But the most important thing is who you’ve shared it with.”
Vic poured himself another drink, then he started talking again.
“She was my best mate. And when she died, I died too. My life went with hers, because it was our life that mattered, not my own.” (p.34)
Gradually, though, this odd couple offer each other the precious gift of life, and more besides. Sam gives Vic someone to talk to, while Vic provides Sam with a refuge from his problems, as well as a surprisingly understanding ear. All of this eventually helps Sam find the courage to accept who he is, and what he wants, but when things fall apart again, and he returns to the life he ran away from, we wonder if it’s all too late.
Honeybee is a great read, but despite Sam’s miserable backstory, it can be a little too light at times. For what should be a fairly dark tale, it glides by effortlessly, and even when Sam’s at his lowest ebb, there’s never a suspicion that anything but a happy ending is on the horizon. Also, while Sam and Vic are well constructed characters, many of the supporting cast are a little too one-dimensional, obvious props for Sam to bounce off. That’s probably a deliberate decision, with Silvey wanting to keep his story positive (this isn’t Tim Winton…), showing any Sams out there that there’s a way through their issues, but some readers may have preferred something darker and more complex.
Nevertheless, Honeybee is still an enjoyable story, with several memorable scenes, including an aborted bank robbery and a disastrous night out in Perth, and while it can be a little fluffy at times, occasionally Silvey does provide a darker tone, with Sam unable to see a way forward. It’s a book all about identity, and having the strength to accept it – and of course, showing that it’s always easier to do so when there’s someone around to lend a hand.