Books

Katherine Johnson
The Better Son

Katherine Johnson’s second novel, The Better Son, is an example of a subgenre of Australian literature often called the Tasmanian Gothic. This type of story typically features an oppressive father and a buried secret, playing out a family melodrama against the craggy beauty of the Tasmanian wilderness, evoked in lyrical prose. Other examples include Favel Parrett’s Past the Shallows and Danielle Wood’s The Alphabet of Light and Dark. Johnson’s novel does not compare well with these precursors.

The Better Son is set in Mole Creek, which exists precariously above a foreboding underworld of limestone caverns, presented with heavy-handed symbolism as “the town’s dark, subterranean underbelly”. The narrative revolves around Kip and his traumatic childhood on a farm, where he is abused by his father, and where his brother, Tommy – favoured by their father – goes missing. 

Other characters introduce other Gothic subplots. Kip’s father, known in town as a war hero, has a murky history. Kip’s mother conceals secrets about her romantic past. There is also Squid, the friendly farmhand and a father figure to Kip, who likewise has had a tragic life. Kip reflects, in one of a number of passages repeating Mole Creek’s allegorical significance, “What he knew of Squid was only the very surface. Underneath that, there was a whole other world going on.” 

In true Gothic style, there are plenty of illegitimate children, books and poems are liberally cited, and letters and diaries are used – often clumsily and unnecessarily – to elucidate plot points. The novel, like Brontë’s Jane Eyre, also attempts to cover a lengthy period of time, which includes Kip’s stint in a boarding school prior to his successful career as an academic in Holland. However, with a far shorter page count than Jane Eyre, these episodes are treated in an inelegantly compressed and unconvincing fashion. 

At the same time, the concluding section of the novel, which shows Kip returning to Mole Creek to confront his repressed past, is strangely full of redundancies, as Kip narrates – aloud to himself – the earlier plot while searching for his brother. 

Indeed, the novel contains too much poor dialogue, often a hallmark of early drafts. The problem here is not lack of talent. The Better Son won a number of manuscript prizes, but I suspect that more time and editorial attention would have resulted in a better work.  KN

Ventura, 277pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 8, 2016 as "Katherine Johnson, The Better Son". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: KN