It seems that ‘these days,’ if many forms of media are to be believed, that someone is always angry about something; that we, as a society, can’t enter into a decent, well-mannered debate anymore. In the interest of free speech and tolerance, let’s look at novels that offer a glimpse into other people’s experiences, be it to deny the modern world, or rise to meet it. 

Let’s start with Darke by Rick Gekoski (Canongate, $24.99).

Writer, bookseller and former Booker Prize judge Rick can occasionally be seen wandering the streets of Hawke’s Bay, where he is a sometime resident. Darke is the first in a trilogy of novels featuring Dr James Darke, himself a writer and academic valiantly penning a biography of Dickens; it’s not going very well. Bereaved and bereft Darke has barricaded himself away from the world, accepting no correspondence, even from his dear daughter, Lucy. He is either a tragic, romantic soul, or a nasty old git. Perhaps both.

The novel is Darke’s diary and as such, we get the worst of him, his innermost thoughts that wouldn’t ordinarily make the light of day in polite society. His reflections on the world are mean, his snobbery eloquent, his attitudes toward certain minorities and community groups reprehensible. In finely honed prose, bibliophile Darke muses on originality of thought, on how to sabotage his neighbour’s dog, on who he is now that his wife is gone. He is old school, bewildered, belligerent and resistant to change and he doesn’t change.

I love that about this book. Darke is who he is, like it or not.

The Guardian describes After Darke, the final novel in the trilogy, as one its Best Books of 2022 … “a riot of eloquent bigotry and bluster.” And it is. Beautifully observant, it will either provoke mirthful, delighted outrage as it did in this reader, or nods of sympathetic agreement from those who rage against ‘wokeism’. Either way, it’s quite delightful.

From a curmudgeonly old man to a fresh young person.

Jamie by L.D. Lapinski (Hachette, $19.99) relates the trials and tribulations of the eponymous hero who is just about to finish Year 6 at school and, as they live in the U.K, head straight for the exciting fresh hell that is High School. But there’s an unusual problem; Jamie is non-binary and the feeder schools are a Boys’ High and a Girls’ High.

For the last few years at Primary, Jamie has been accepted as another little human, and gender hasn’t been an issue. The toilets and changing rooms are unisex, their parents, peers and teachers are used to Jamie’s pronouns and all has ticked along uneventfully. The advent of High School changes everything and it looks as though Jamie will have to make a binary choice and live a lie – but they refuse to do so.

The story, aimed at younger readers of about 9 years and up, is a beautiful tale of young kids noodling around and being themselves, and then suddenly finding that the world is not set up for them. It explores identity, understanding, kindness and tolerance and serves as a fabulous educational tool for those who don’t really understand what people mean when they say they are ‘not a boy or a girl.’

The author is non-binary and through Jamie, provides a clear explanation of terms and experiences around gender. I defy anyone to read this and not have learned something, and, if not already sympathetic to gender diversity, not to be a little more understanding that some things are more complex than they seem.

Old man rails against the crude, modern world, child helps us to understand it, and now, a juvenile delinquent takes us into the depths of his murky brain.

Shy by Max Porter (Faber & Faber, $27.99) describes Last Chance, a home for ‘very disturbed young men’, and Shy is determined to escape it. But what is he escaping? As we get to know this young man through Porter’s pared back prose, we enter a messed-up mind of warped perceptions capable of thirty seconds of joyous, cathartic violence followed by a lifetime of regret.

Structurally, the story is told in the chaotic style of Shy’s mind. One-line paragraphs depict waiting to escape; he’s jumpy, his rucksack heavy. A memory of a happier time that turned to dust is described in dense text, a rush of thought climaxing in ruin. A night-time encounter, a city boy in the real dark for the first time; ‘It’s a different density of night by the pond.’ Deeply beautiful lines that describe Shy’s intense experience.

Shy is the story of a mind outside itself, unable to function rationally, to order the body to conduct itself how it knows it should. The story doesn’t offer any quick fixes or happy endings, but there is hope and there are soul nourishing sentences penned by the hand of a master. It’s incredible, brutal, crude, sad and absolutely stunning.

Sometimes we read to escape, sometimes to be educated and sometimes to give our worldview a nudge. These books will do that nicely. 


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