The novel’s opening jolts the reader like a slap in the face, occurring at the moment when fourteen-year-old Adam Vander has grown strong enough to defend himself against an abusive father, Joe. The stand-off between Adam and Joe is depicted in terrifying, visceral detail, making the first sixty pages so tense that like me, you might not want to read them at night.
Adam emerges, though not unscathed, from the suburban house in which he has been kept as a prisoner, to a world he doesn’t know, unable to read or fend for himself. He is taken under the wing of the streetwise Billy Benson, whose motives for helping Adam become increasingly muddied as the story progresses.
Brown has taken many risks with this book yet they all seem to pay off. She writes from the perspective of the two young men, Adam and Billy, effectively starting the story in the middle, slowly revealing the full extent of the trauma that the boys have survived, building tension as the past catches up to the present. She deals with the incendiary topic of child abuse with sensitivity and without being gratuitous, at the same time leaving us in no doubt as to the horrific nature of what the boys have experienced.
The characterisations are remarkable. The boys’ voices are so strong, they leap from the page, staying inside your head for days. Their reactions to the world around them and their interactions with each other likewise have power and authenticity, filled with moments of love and pain:
[Billy] held out his hand to be shaken.
Adam would have preferred that they hugged. Such was the pull to do it, Adam had to plant his feet, tense his tummy, lock his spine, all to stop from reaching out, holding on, clinging tight.
It was my pleasure to attend the launch, where Brown talked about the process of writing Through the Cracks. She admitted to being a minimalist when it comes to research, believing in the power of empathy and imagination to fill in the cracks, so to speak. “Everyone has different experiences that push them into dark places,” she said. “But the emotions in those places are similar.” She admits to being proud of this book, for having written something “passionate but not preachy.”
She’s got a lot to be proud of.
A word of advice: if you have the book as a new release paperback, do not read the backcover blurb as it contains details that some readers will consider spoilers. (The online blurb has been edited to remove spoilers).
Through the Cracks by Honey Brown (2014) is published by Penguin.
This review has been submitted as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Listen to my review of Through the Cracks on Radio National Books and Arts Daily here.