Sylvia Johnson, Watch Out for Me (Allen & Unwin 2011)
Sylvia Johnson has made occasional pseudonymous appearances in the comments section of this blog. A couple of weeks ago she wrote asking if I’d like to read her novel, which she was expecting from the publisher any day. Never one to knock back a freebie or an invitation to be in the in crowd, I said I’d be delighted. The book arrived on my doorstep an hour before I was due to go to the airport for a long flight, so it joined Raimond Gaita’s After Romulus, incongruously I thought, in my carry-on bag.
I guess Watch Out for Me is a genre book – a psychological thriller. The Woods children – Hannah, Richard and their little sister Lizzie – spend a couple of weeks each summer in the 1960s at Bradley’s Head on Sydney Harbour, playing in the park, exploring the disused lighthouse and racketing around the abandoned tunnels with other summer visitors. One year, the Year Everything Changes, their family takes in their cousin Toby, about the same age as Lizzie, who has been traumatised by the erratic behaviour of his mother (shades of After Romulus!) and is timid, careful and eventually traumatised all over again by the teasing games of the young mob. That world of free-range childhood with its exhilarations and terrors is wonderfully evoked, including a tense moment of dawning eroticism in the pitch black of the tunnels. Then something terrible happens in the park, and the children’s dramas are caught up in a bigger, nastier drama.
The summer of 1967 is told from a number of points of view, some of them recalling events four decades later, when the US President is visiting Sydney amid a high security alert. Two other narratives unfold in this other time – in one Lizzie is besieged by an anti-Western mob in a North African town, in the other Hannah and Toby are meet again in Sydney for the first time since that pivotal summer, and it gradually becomes apparent that something creepy and dangerous is going on around them – something even worse than the brutishness of the US security forces and the strident commentary of the radio shock-jock (who, incidentally, played a disgusting role in the 1967 story). These stories, which turn out to have other links besides the ancient history, unfold to properly scary, operatic climaxes.
And there’s a fourth story, told entirely through clippings from the British press: the story of Jean Charles de Menezes, the Brazilian man who was shot by police in the aftermath of the London Underground bombings in 2005. These clippings add a kick to the book: the Woodses’ story is fiction, and you might read it just for the thrill, but de Menezes’ was killed in the real world, and its presence makes the Woodses’ story seem more pressing. In After Romulus Raimond Gaita says he is convinced that people are moved by his father’s story because they trust that he ‘tried to tell it truthfully and that it is truthful’. I think the press clippings have a similar effect here: they act as a kind of pledge from the author that in her imagined story she is trying to tell something truthfully, that the account she gives us of the world is truthful.
I’m not suggesting an equivalence between this book and anything by Raimond Gaita, but my two plane books did speak to each other seriously, and I think Watch Out for Me succeeds in being persuasively, chillingly truthful.