Trysten Black is a 14-year-old rural Huck Finn type with an overbearing best friend, a crush on new girl Jessica at school, and a brother, Shaun, who is off fighting the Taliban. His mother, Kirsten, listens for war updates on a portable radio while Trysten catches fish on the property and keeps his father in the loop, Dad having moved into a caravan after a blue with Shaun before he shipped out. When Shaun comes back from the combat zone, he has post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition that challenges the notions of heroism harboured by family and locals.
Novels dealing with the impact of Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan are thin on the ground, so Jarrah Dundler’s debut is a welcome addition to the canon. However, the trope of man returning home from war and struggling to reintegrate into small town life because of internalised trauma is a well-established one. Books such as Kevin Powers’ The Yellow Birds and Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk have shown us that a deep engagement with the complexity of the scenario is required, as is something fresh to say.
Sadly, Hey Brother disappoints on both fronts. The story is this: Shaun is messed up by what happened on tour. No further interrogation of the issues is offered. Dundler deals with the scenario in a simplistic fashion. Admittedly, capturing someone in the throes of a post-traumatic episode is not easy in fiction, but Shaun repeatedly crying, “Aarrgghh!” and chucking pool balls at the walls of his tin shed believing he is under fire from the enemy reads as clichéd and clumsy.
In a jarring, anachronistic counterpoint to Shaun’s struggles, Trysten barrels around school and drunken parties like an extra in a ’90s frat movie, complete with big-haired horny teenage girls doling out head jobs. The kids call each other on landlines and watch Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom on TV. It’s as if a late ’80s coming-of-age tale has been grafted on to another story that takes place 15 years later.
Stylistically, the novel is jumbled. Its initial measured tone, which effectively captures simmering rural life, descends into an ocker shouting match as the narrative progresses. Trysten’s quest to lose his virginity with Jessica becomes paramount, while his suffering brother is effectively sidelined. There’s a promising book in here but, like its teenage protagonist, it has yet to reach maturity. JD
Allen & Unwin, 288pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 18, 2018 as "Jarrah Dundler, Hey Brother". Subscribe here.