Synopsis from Goodreads.
My mum’s skin is white, my skin is brown and I have a blue birthmark.
Two secrets rule my life. One is something I need to know and the other is something I need to forget. They won’t let me go.
Some people say you can’t death roll with a beast that has already survived a million years and live to tell the story.
Or can you?
You don’t get many crocodiles in Manchester. I know, I know, I should have warnings when I drop bombs like that, shouldn’t I? I hope you weren’t drinking or anything… apologies if your computer is now a bit damp.
I think the closest I’ve ever come to a crocodile was on a school trip to Chester Zoo but… well, when there’s a place you can go where bats fly around your head, crocodiles don’t really register. I don’t know anything about crocodiles. And, while I’m talking about things that I don’t really know much about, I’ll admit I don’t know much about Australia’s Northern Territory. All of Australia to me looks like Jellicoe Road….and, um…. Ramsay Street*. I mean I’ve seen Crocodile Dundee and I am aware that Paul Hogan exists. Does that count?
Of course not.
So it may sound weird when I say that this book, which is about a seventeen boy who lives in Australia’s Northern Territory and works on a crocodile tour boat, is one of the most affective YA books I’ve read this year and, possibly, ever.
I first heard about this book when I read Mrs Scott’s fantastic review on her blog. I’d never heard of Ms Jeffrey before. I know there are a lot of authors who fly under the radar but seeing as I am all about the contemporary, I like to think that I have my finger on the pulse. I like to keep a look out for YA contemporary authors, especially ones from Australia because you know they are going to be good. So why I left this book on my bookshelf for so long, I have no idea, because I think that, on this book alone, Ms Jeffrey is up there with my favourite YA contemporary authors.
This book has everything we’ve come to expect from Australian YA. Fresh, raw dialogue. Fearless subject matters. A subtle humour that runs through the pages. Fantastic characters and….
Actually, I’m not going to describe this book in relation to any other book because I haven’t really read another book like it. I went into this book not really knowing what it was about and I’m so glad I did. I think with some books it’s OK to go into knowing about the plot but this one isn’t.
Instead, I’m going to talk about Barry, our narrator.
I always wonder why there aren’t many YA books with male narrators. They really are a rare commodity, aren’t they? I’m not saying that everyone should start writing books with male narrators willy-nilly, because actually, the thing that struck me the most about Barry wasn’t that he was a boy but that he was authentic. I never felt like I was reading a grown woman writing about a teenager, I felt like I was reading a book about a seventeen year old teenage boy. Maybe Ms Jeffrey can hand out lessons on how to write authentic teenage narrators to some authors. Actually, no. She definitely should because then that would mean I would only have to read books written that feature narrators that I actually care about.
Again, it’s sad that is a rare commodity.
But I really cared about Barry and, as I flicked through my notes before writing this review, I realised he’s one of those narrators that people like me say cliché things about. He’s been through a lot. He’s broken but he’s strong. It’s so refreshing to find a narrator like him. He’s going to stay with me for a long time.
But, as ever, I stand by my clichés. All of the above. A thousand times yes. I loved Barry Mundy and he’s probably the only person who could get me on a boat in crocodile infested waters. That means a lot.
It’s difficult to talk about this book without alluding to spoilery plot points. I will say that it’s not an easy book to read, not at all, especially when I connected with Barry so much. It was difficult to see Barry go through everything he did. It’s heavy, it’s powerful, it’s uncomfortable but, most importantly, it’s not sentimental. I loved how Ms Jeffrey took a step back from Barry’s story, judging the distance perfectly so the reader wasn’t completely alienated but was prevented from getting too close and being told what to think and how to feel. I think this is where Ms Jeffrey excels. This book could have ‘emotional manipulation’ stamped all over it but luckily, Ms Jeffrey knew what she was doing and her writing did all the talking. Cliché, maybe, but she had me completely captivated, lump in my throat, e-mail open so I could send rambling e-mails to Anna with sentences like “OMG, WHAT IS GOING TO HAPPEN!?!”
Barry’s narration is so matter-of-fact and passive and it broke my heart so many times I’ve lost count.
“I just felt the road keeping on in front of me and I followed it.”
“I’m like a river without a name. Flowing through life because that’s what I do without knowing where I’ve come from and where I’m going. There’s beasts that have made a good home in me, too.”
Sure, I wanted to get closer because I wanted to see that Barry was OK and… well, ok yeah, I wanted to give him a cuddle too, but I loved how things were left unsaid. Problems were left unsolved. Characters that were OK in the beginning were lost at the end. Everything was still messy, but while I wouldn’t say it was a happy ending, I’d say this book had the perfect ending. I found myself holding my breath right along with Barry Mundy and when I read the final page, there was a certain kind of peace and acceptance that things just might be ok in the end… eventually.
I also absolutely adored the setting. It was bleak, isolated and the earthy tone of the story perfectly framed the book’s main theme: finding your place in the world and making sense of it. How can you feel significant when you’re surrounded by vast amounts of nature that has survived for millions of years?
“You can’t roll with a beast that has already survived a million years and live to tell the story.”
Ms Jeffrey’s descriptions of Barry’s surroundings paired with the eccentric and colourful characters he meets was extremely powerful and truly gave me the feel of what ‘off-the-beaten-track’ Australia is like. I don’t think this book would have worked half as well as it did if it was set in suburbia or in an Australian high school.
I had this great idea of writing about six paragraphs about the exploration of nature and the beautiful and heart-wrenching metaphors that. But I forgot that I don’t have to do that anymore because I’m not getting marked on this review (AM I?!). Also, why should I make you sit through my writing when I can use something that Ms Jeffrey penned?
“When you stand and look out at the river, you wouldn’t know they were there. The crocs, that is…. But once you know there are crocs in there- plenty of the beasts- it changes the way you look at it. The water is somehow deeper, menacing. Alive and dangerous. It’s another world with power and intrigue, disguise and desperation. And in some places, it’s war.”
And that’s just one out of about fifty quotes I picked out. This whole book is practically re-written in my note book accompanied by sad faces and ‘ohhhhh!’s.
Because that’s what reviewers do, yes?
I don’t have enough space to write all the praise I have for this book, so I’m going to stop here.
Go and buy this book.
Tell Barry I say hi.
I think you’ll like him.
*It was either watch Neighbours or do my uni degree. Toss a coin?