Sydney, Australia, 1942. Two children, on the cusp of adolescence, have been spirited away from the war in Europe and given shelter in a house on Neutral Bay, taken in by the charity of an old widow who wants little to do with them. The boy, Gilbert, has escaped the Blitz. The girl, Eirene, lost her father in a Greek prison. Left to their own devices, the children forge a friendship of startling honesty, forming a bond of uncommon complexity that they sense will shape their destinies for years to come.
Seen through the eyes of the young the world can seem like a distressing, grotesque and thoroughly grey place, especially for children living through extraordinary times and upheavals.
In his last and unfinished novel, Patrick White has the seed of what was to be his final epic. With the trademark downbeat feeling that he does so well, the themes of longing and melancholy course through this work and punctuate right at the heart of the social ills that society attempts to hide beneath a veneer of respectability.
tonight I am the Meccano set no-one will ever put together, even if all the bits are there.
Class is the epitome of the social disease and this commentary into the nature of the adults is a parody of the respectability and selflessness they portray, the inherent selfishness of human nature, even in good acts is shown to be most farcical in the face of an innocent child’s perception.
the character viewpoint changes rapidly and seamlessly as innermost thoughts are explored in brutal honesty. At times, the perspective changes once or twice within the same paragraph but never to the detriment of the narrative flow. The beauty of White’s style is that he leaves you in no doubt about what each character is doing or thinking at any time…in a way his style – for me – depicts the all round complete character portrait.
Every character has their bad points exquisitely rendered, be it class prejudice or pure ignorance of circumstance. This is off set with the frighteningly mature voices and views of the children, which are a merciless indictment of life and the circumstances it throws at people.
The juvenile conversations blended in with adult intuitiveness reveal a litany of terrible traits in this raw and uncompromising struggle against loneliness and surrounded by an alien culture. I’m painting a miserable picture of a view on life that perhaps people don’t want to see or use as a basis for self-examination. Admittedly life in all its ugliness is poured forth in this book but it’s refreshing to get such a raw and realistic angle on things.
Patrick White is an author who deserves much more coverage than he seems to get, this unfinished novel – discovered posthumously in his notes – is perhaps not the best starting point for newcomers. The lack of punctuation is due to the draft being copied verbatim with no editing and whilst there is colloquialism it’s not impenetrable and I found the vulgarity a bit off-putting. The word gelatinous is in this book though so that makes me happy and allows me to end this review on a high note.