BOOK REVIEW: We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson

Review by Robert Verhagen

We Were Not Men tells the story of Jon and Eden Hardacre, twin brothers who are ejected from their childhood by the tragic death of their parents. They are consumed by the fraternal claustrophobia which inflames competition between them, in both sport and love. The two brothers are accomplished swimmers, training for the Olympics in the waters of their home suburb of Newport, and the river at their step-grandmother’s property in Flowerdale; but they are also teenagers chafing under the demands of their sudden adulthood. These pressures ultimately come to a head when they both fall for Carmelina, one of their peers. They drift apart, but are unable to drift outside the bounds of their alcoholic step-grandmother, Bobbie, whose all-encompassing presence is the safety net within which the boys’ coming-of-age unfolds.

Although the novel’s opening tragedy is the fait accompli which sets the story in motion, grief resurfaces in hurdles throughout, not only for Jon and Eden, but for Bobbie as well. She is the widow of their Grandpa Jack, and it is her sorrow as a grandmother, coupled with her juvenile characteristics, that demonstrates the perennial nature of growing pains. We Were Not Men also relies heavily on the theme of natural totemism in suburban life. The novel’s peculiar lyricism, rich with metaphor, infuses setting with an awareness of the characters’ traumas: honeybees on the property at Flowerdale hint at eternal life, and the ocean swirls resiliently beneath the power station at Newport. As Bobbie remarks, ‘Power needs water,’ a reminder that human drama often finds its match in the natural world.

At times these metaphors are overladen, but mostly they contribute to the lasting memories which the reader takes away from the novel’s sense of place:

‘. . . yellow-russet-brown were the colours of cowardice and of the emergency lights they’d used to illuminate our accident. I knew also though that these were the colours of childhood and honey and of our mum’s hair.’

Despite these thematic strengths, and although the well-advertised ‘first 22 pages’ are indeed vivid and well-baited, the shocking detail of the tragic car accident comes at a cost to the narrative centre by burning significant emotional energy and temporarily diminishing the promise of the unfolding plot.

When a manuscript is finished quickly, it is generally taken as a mark of the author’s clear vision. By that logic, the claim that We Were Not Men took 30 years to write may explain its tendency to drift into episodes punctuated by Bobbie’s aphorisms.

The frequency of Bobbie’s, at first, charming non-sequiturs, hampers the central journey of the Hardacre brothers. During the middle of the narrative, when the driving tension relies on their separation and uncertain reconciliation, Bobbie’s itinerant consciousness seems to reduce the characters in her immediate orbit to vessels; allegories rather than real people.

Aching questions and conversations which Jon shares with his step-grandmother stagnate:

‘I feel like I’ve been robbed.’

‘We all do,’ she said immediately and then quickly added, ‘I’m not going to be dovish,’ as if she would not indulge me.

‘It’s not the losing,’ I said. ‘It’s when I should go fast and I don’t.’

‘You say tomato, I say potato,’ she said. 

This stalemate, however, does not pervade the entire novel, which is redeemed by evocative scenery rather than characterisation.

Readers will remember Jon and Eden swimming in the ‘Warmies’ at Newport; they will imagine the shallow spirituality of King Parrot Creek at Flowerdale, the school oval, the half-finished scoreboard, the smell of bushfire and taste of honey, and uncle Jack’s bedroom; they will visualise all these things before they recall any of the faces of the secondary characters. This is due to the energy required to sustain the brothers’ tragic mutual approval-seeking which demands that the journeys of subordinate characters like Carmelina and Bobbie’s suitor Werner collapse into a united support network that ensures the brothers’ reunion.

Although this provides uniform closure to the various emotional conflicts, it does question whether these aides exist as characters in their own right or whether they are, as Bobbie’s pseudo-philosophies suggest, simply marks on the doorjamb which measure the brothers’ growth. This risk is particularly evident in the character of Carmelina, who, although not two-dimensional, struggles to transcend the form of an unintended femme fatale.

We Were Not Men is an achingly beautiful novel, deserving of its comparisons with Markus Zusak’s Bridge of Clay and Trent Dalton’s Boy Swallows Universe. It traps within its pages a Victoria before urban sprawl, when the bright stars reserved for country towns ‘used to be like [that] everywhere’. It is a story of growing up with family, both distant and near – although there is a particular bias towards brotherhood – which manages to deliver a pining nostalgia without being oversentimental.

The novel expresses a need for humans to be mindful of the pulse of the natural world, it vindicates the resilience and pliability of children in trauma, and provides alternatives to nuclear families while standing in solidarity with single carers. 

It may be that in a novel of such profound, at times disquieting, lyrical beauty, the characters are indeed vessels; bodies that demonstrate the relationship between troubled consciousness and landscape. And although the characters tend to dissolve into their surroundings, as bodies in water or photographs distinct only in a few colours, the act of reducing them to expressions and voices in stilted conversations elevates the importance of what they say, and more poignantly, what is left unsaid.

We Were Not Men was published by HarperCollins and has an RRP of $32.99. It is available from most online and local retailers.

Robert Verhagen is an emerging author, English literature educator and bookseller at Eltham Bookshop, north-east of Melbourne. He is currently undertaking postgraduate studies in the Masters of Creative Writing, Publishing and Editing at the University of Melbourne.

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