Oliver of the Levant
Walkley Award-winning journalist Debra Jopson has thrown her hat into the fiction ring with her debut novel Oliver of the Levant. It’s a coming-of-age story that cleverly avoids the clichés of the form by setting its young protagonists’ story during the tumultuous lead-up to the Lebanese civil war.
The Oliver of the title has just turned 15, an awkward, impulsive teenage boy, seething with resentment at his airline pilot father who has effectively abandoned him, his younger brother, Jess, and their heroin-addicted mother to jet around the world with his new young wife, Babette. Initially Oliver is not a terribly likeable character, sullen and lacking the charm his brother effortlessly exudes, compulsively snooping through Babette’s diaries and eavesdropping on conversations, craving attention and affection but too excruciatingly self-conscious to know how to get either. In other words, Jopson has created an entirely convincing portrait of a teenage boy.
When Oliver’s father gets a job flying for Cedar Air, he sets up a base for Oliver, Jess and his new wife in Beirut, where Oliver is thrown into the midst of simmering religious and political tensions that will soon erupt into civil war. Longing for acceptance and friendship, Oliver attempts to connect with locals his own age, but finds himself torn between opposing sides of the coming conflict, unsure of whose cause is just and who, if anyone, he can trust.
Jopson’s biography at the end of the book reveals she spent a period of her youth in Lebanon, and she has worked hard to present a picture of the country that is fair, compassionate and believably rendered through the lens of a 15-year-old Australian boy. However, Lebanon as a place never quite comes alive on the page. The geography of the city, its sights and smells, the atmosphere of Beirut in 1969 – there are flashes of these things, but they fail to cohere into a strong sense of place. There are issues, too, with the pacing of the novel, which drags in the first third and gallops in the final pages, and with the local Lebanese characters, who feel thinly drawn.
But Oliver’s tumultuous inner life is never less than compelling. In particular, his relationship with Babette, who quickly becomes the most engaging secondary character in the novel, forms a warm emotional core that carries the reader over the occasional rough patches in this otherwise original and consuming debut. DV
Vintage, 358pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 9, 2016 as "Debra Jopson, Oliver of the Levant". Subscribe here.