March 17, 2006

Monday's Child is Fair of Face... Thursday's is muddy

Surreal and haunting are two of the words that best describe Australian author Sonya Hartnett's novel Thursday's Child. A tale of a tattered family surviving an unforgiving and exhausted land on the grace of neighbors, the blending of history with magical realism, and the mythical metaphor of a world above and below the radar of most people renders the sometimes implausibly strange storyline into a seamless tale which occasionally uses wry humor and desolate truths to describe the tumultuousness of growing up.

Harper Flute is the third born child, and older sister of James Augustin Barnabas Flute, called Tin for convenience. At the birth of the last child, elder sister Audrey is keeping close to Mamma, Devon is helping Papa, and Harper is called on to take the smallest brother away from all the fuss in the house. Spring rains have made the banks of the river soft, and only a miracle keeps a tragedy from happening as the banks cave in. Harper is convinced that her brother Tin is touched and destined for great things.

Narrated solely through Harper's eyes, this novel depicts family struggling to survive soldier settlement deprivations, poverty, an unforgiving landscape, war-scarred psyches and classist despair. And while dirt and death are close neighbours, the tale bears a peculiar optimism that one finds in children who don't understand how poor and bad off they are. The central characters are truly odd, if not oddly likable - they somehow have the reader cheering for them even as their stupid choices cause everything around them to deteriorate. And then there's the brother, Tin, whose preternatural ability for digging sees him live amid a labyrinth of underground tunnels.

The enigmatic Tin doesn't talk, doesn't seem to be quite human, doesn't eat with the others, and rarely comes inside. He tunnels. Beneath the house the smooth brown dirt is a rabbit warren of holes and rooms and who knows what, and it's a wonder that the house doesn't sink into it. Nobody seems to be able to stop the little boy, who is only small when he begins. The omnipresent and interfering neighbors gather close with their opinions and prognostications, but Tin digs on.

Much of what Harper depends on in life -- her father's strength, her mother's care, her brother and sister's presence, even the house itself -- is eventually shown to be as trustworthy as sand. Everything comes down around her ears, and it is only by the tremendous will of those surrounding -- and a tremendous stroke of luck -- that the family is able to rise. Stubbornness and resilience is the theme of the novel, and though the ending might annoy you greatly, this is an enjoyable different tale of the Depression.

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