Books

Barry Jonsberg
Catch Me If I Fall

In some ways, Barry Jonsberg has always been ahead of his time. While his early work navigated class and friendship in the rough-and-tumble world of the schoolyard, his Pandora Jones trilogy, published in 2014-2015, was one of the first Australian attempts to replicate the massively popular Hunger Games books and stories like it. My Life as an Alphabet, turned into the film H is for Happiness, was about awkward protagonist Candice Phee, who is perhaps on the autism spectrum, although this is never confirmed in the book. Jonsberg was more overt in his efforts to introduce a transgender character in A Song Only I Can Hear, a middle-grade novel praised in Books+Publishing for its “powerful treatment” of gender identity issues.

It is hard to decide whether Jonsberg is naturally cutting-edge, or if his stories come from a desire to write what sells. He has tried his hand at everything – dystopic trilogies, magical realism and straight-up realism, as well as covering all the character-type trends. But his work is strongest when he writes about the ways people misunderstand each other, particularly as young people and adolescents.

Jonsberg’s early novels had the kind of gritty, high-stakes realism celebrated in ’80s and ’90s Australian young adult fiction, although this kind of fiction is less celebrated these days, with a few notable exceptions. The Whole Business with Kiffo and the Pitbull, his much-lauded YA debut, interrogated class and social stereotypes as played out in a classroom warzone. Kiffo, the underdog of the book, is painted as a stereotypical juvenile delinquent – with a bad home and bad attitude – but his unlikely friendship with Calma, a brainy do-gooder, is redemptive for them both. Jonsberg has a tendency to turn the tables on his readers, creating characters with all the markings of a particular schoolyard “type”, and then putting them in situations where they have the opportunity to surprise those around them – as well as the reader.

Catch Me If I Fall, Jonsberg’s latest middle-grade novel, is a book that, on the surface at least, doesn’t give much away. It’s packaged with a cover that offers very few hints about the book’s contents, and the blurb doesn’t add many more. Going into the book, the reader will likely only know that it’s a story about Ash and Aiden Delatour, twins whose lives are forever altered when Aiden suffers a serious injury that fundamentally changes his behaviour.

It would be easy to think that this is another well-intentioned novel about a character with disability, written by a person without the lived experience to do it justice. Thankfully, this is not that novel. Without wanting to offer any serious spoilers here, Catch Me If I Fall in fact explores the effects of climate change, class and artificial intelligence on people’s lives in a near-future Australia.

Jonsberg is subtle in the way he introduces the futuristic setting into the novel. The book opens with a relatively standard scene in which Ash and Aiden beg their mother for another bedtime story, but instead get a lecture on sibling responsibility: “Siblings are there to catch you when you fall.” Climate change is only hinted at, in the extreme weather that knocks the power out and causes raging storms outside the house.

Fast-forward six years, and the twins and their parents have moved to a more stable location, with a big house, advanced technology, and enough wealth to buy their way into a prestigious school. It isn’t until part way through the novel that we discover the reason for the family’s riches, and that their privilege is even more extreme than by current standards – they live in a future where, except for the biological surprise of twins or triplets, couples are sterilised after having one child, due to a lack of resources; the natural world is a harsh and barren place, in which even a spider is a rare and astonishing sight; and a wall has been built to “protect” those who are able to live by government regulations from those who can’t (or won’t). Jonsberg’s future is well imagined and compelling, although the sheer scope of his ideas would have perhaps been better served by a slightly longer novel, giving him the space to really tease them out.

A chance encounter with a group of teenagers from the other side of the wall, coupled with the trauma from his head injury, leaves Aiden in particular questioning his privilege. Ash, who is far more comfortable with her wealth and luxury, is slower to follow, but is prompted to start seeing the world differently, which ultimately allows her to be there for Aiden when he needs her the most.

The lessons in the novel can be a bit on the nose. Jonsberg’s tendency to upset stereotypes is somewhat forced – Ash’s new schoolfriend Charlotte is on the lower rungs of society among those on the “right” side of the wall, and she opens Ash’s eyes to the values and pressures of hard work, while Ash’s teacher, Mr Meredith, is a charming freethinker, able to befriend his students enough that they take on board his not-so-subtle teachings about seeing people from a different point of view. Ash herself is too self-centred at times, frustrating in her lack of nuanced perspective, and her shallowness can be difficult to believe when she’s by no means stupid.

Despite this, Jonsberg is an easy writer to read – fast-paced, with a natural voice – and his years of teaching are apparent in his (mostly) well-observed teenage characters. Catch Me If I Fall will no doubt be devoured by its intended audience and spark some fascinating – and necessary – conversations about the future of our planet, the ethics of technology, and the way we can use whatever privilege we have to make a difference.

Bec Kavanagh

Allen & Unwin, 272pp, $16.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 7, 2020 as "Barry Jonsberg, Catch Me If I Fall".

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Reviewer: Bec Kavanagh