Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Book Review: THE BETTER SON by Katherine Johnson

The Better Son

The Better Son
Author: Katherine Johnson
Publisher: Ventura Press
Read: December 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Following the release of her hugely successful first novel Pescador’s Wake, Katherine Johnson is back to share her exceptional writing talent with the world.

The Better Son is a richly imaginative and universal story about the danger of secrets, the beauty of forgiveness and the enthralling power of our natural landscape.

My thoughts:

The Better Son makes the perfect finale for 2016 for me, capping a year of discovering some very talented new Australian writers. Set in the wild and wonderful Tasmanian countryside, it not only offers a moving family drama but also a perfect opportunity for armchair travel. Written with insight and an intimate knowledge of the area and its inhabitants, the words have the power to carry you away into a magical place of danger and beauty, where people have to eke out a meagre living from an untamed and sometimes cruel land. Into this landscape steps Kip, an adult male, returned to his old childhood home to revisit the setting of a terrible tragedy when he was only nine years old, in the hope of finally putting his demons to rest. Little does he know that the full horror of the past is only just unfolding.

Johnson has a way of bringing the Tasmanian countryside to life in the pages of her novel, which had me hooked from the start and made me devour the story in one single sitting. Initially told through the eyes of nine-year-old Kip, we get to know a family fractured by the scars of war and the violent temper of Kip’s father, who rules with a cruel hand, letting his temper and frustration out on his youngest and most vulnerable son. Kip’s only escape is nature, and it is no wonder that he feels happiest out of doors, exploring the wild foothills and its network of hidden caves, which have already cost many a life.

The Better Son is a story of secrets, family, relationships and survival, and ultimately the wounds left by a cruel and unjust childhood. All throughout his life, Kip bears the scars of feeling like the lesser son, the one not worthy of his father’s love. Even without the tragedy befalling the family, he would have been a troubled man – now also bearing a terrible guilt, which makes him incapable of being a loving father and husband to his own family. Although an air of sadness and tragedy runs like a fault line through the novel, the overall feeling ultimately is one of hope and redemption. I loved the historical detail, which so skilfully describes the hardships of farming folk in a wild country in the 1950’s. The only one criticism with the story was the somewhat inconsistent portrayal of Kip’s father – I initially got the sense of a man scarred by the horrors of war, which rang true to me. However, in later pages, Harold is described as senselessly cruel and vindictive, which somewhat didn’t fit with my image of this particular character. But this is a small quibble that did not detract from the overall storyline.

To recap, The Better Son is a well-written family drama you will be loathe to put down. Inspired by true historical events, it makes for a compelling read, the perfect book to pick up for the holidays to enjoy on the beach or in the hammock.

Thank you to Ventura Press for providing a copy of The Better Son in exchange for an honest review.

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