Denizen by James McKenzie Watson. Viking. 352pp. $32.99.
It is common for television programs to be prefaced with a note alerting unsuitability for children or possible upset for some viewers.
Here is a book that could carry such a warning.
The publishers describe it as a gothic thriller, which is fine so long as you don't imagine dungeons or some form of medieval persecution; what it does share with such work is the way that events and people from the past intrude on the present.
The central character and first-person narrator is Parker, a 24-year-old music student in Sydney. He tells the story in the present tense, going back to an incident when he is nine and is in a car accident in which his mother is seriously injured. She blames him for distracting her and the two of them begin a series of rows during which he calls her a "stupid f---ing bitch" and she tells him that there are times when she wishes she could go back in time to kill him when he was six months old.
The pair live on a farm in far western New South Wales. Parker's father gets out of the house every morning as early as he can to get away from the bickering. Parker's mother teaches in his school, though they meet only going and coming each day. He has a theory about a kid in his class who is slow and convinces himself that this is a condition that the kid passes on to his classmates. This leads to the first act of violence, one that affects Parker for the rest of his life.
The conflict between mother and son becomes so bad that she takes her own life. Four years later, in secondary school, Parker forms a close friendship with two girls, Nayley and Hazel. With their help, he is able ignore the small-town bullies and make headway in his studies.
The three of them go on weekend camping trips, during which the girls help Parker to see that he has problems and should seek help. He is in year 12 before he does so, his treatment including almost two months in a hospital in Sydney.
After school, he enrols in university in Sydney and is given work as a tutor. He meets and falls in love with Kelly and they have a child together. Unfortunately, he has stopped taking his medication, and is unaware that his former problems are returning. What happens next is too distressing to mention, even in a brief review.
This is a deeply confronting book.
The writing is quite brilliant, drawing the reader deeper and deeper into the minds of the characters. There are frequent changes in time, back and forward, but the story is told in the present tense throughout. Parker, the broken child who thought that stupidity was infectious, mutates into the new father who adores his baby son.
You will not easily forget this book.