Children in peril make for gripping stories – think The Brothers Grimm and Dickens, A Series of Unfortunate Events and All the Light We Cannot See. In Sign, Colin Dray’s debut thriller, the child in question is Sam, a young boy recovering from an operation to remove a cancer from his throat, leaving him mute. His father, Donald, shot through to Perth a while ago, so Sam lives with his younger sister, adorable and lively Katie, and mum, Joanne, in pre-mobile-phone Sydney. His father’s sister, eccentric Aunt Dettie, has been of steadfast practical and emotional help through the separation and Sam’s illness.
Until Joanne begins to date again. Then Dettie receives a fortuitous phone call from Donald. The family is reconciling, she tells the kids, and piles them in her crappy car to drive across the country without any preparation or even time to pack. Their mother will be waiting for them in Perth, so no need to say goodbye now. Over the many long, hot days of driving along empty roads with bushfires pressing, the tension increases until it (eventually) becomes apparent to Sam that something is very wrong.
Dray’s set-up is clever and fresh and Sign is unputdownable, but oh, what it could have been if only the villains weren’t quite so moustache-twirling (even muttering their evil plans aloud) and every plot twist wasn’t so obviously telegraphed. There’s no subtext or nuance at all in Dray’s explanations of Sam’s state of mind. A protagonist without dialogue is a brave choice full of potential, but Sam is a dull, sulky child, passive for far too long, without much inner life and unremarkable apart from his illness – an accurate portrayal of a boy grieving for his voice perhaps, but accurate is unrelated to interesting. Perhaps in awareness of this, the first 50 pages are spent on Sam’s recovery from his operation, building reader sympathy. It’s good writing but could be part of another book.
It’s a mixed blessing, a wonderful idea at the beginning of a career when a writer’s craft is still developing – but what’s the alternative? Choose an inferior idea and start off adequate-foot-forward? In any case, the concept behind Sign is so strong Dray likely has more where that came from. The book jacket suggests “For readers of Craig Silvey…”; cheeky on behalf of the publishers since one pivotal passage seems a full-on homage to Jasper Jones. But Sign is otherwise an original, cracking read that bodes well for Dray’s future novels. LS
Allen & Unwin, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 3, 2018 as "Colin Dray, Sign". Subscribe here.