I have just finished reading The Mary Smokes Boys by Patrick Holland, which impressed me no end. This is only Holland’s second novel but I am prepared to bet he will become one of our most significant writers over the next decade.
His style is arresting and original; it reminds me most of Cormac McCarthy, but is distinctly Australian. It’s literary but plot-driven. It’s slow and understated yet powerful. His use of landscape – not just the lyrical description but the deep embedding in plot and character – brought a tear to my eye in the first few pages:
“Without the cemetery was rolling yellow grassland where felled and windthrown timber was scattered amidst spare, ringbarked trees” (19).
Grey’s mother dies in childbirth, and his father is mostly lost to drink, or working the fences somewhere far away. Grey has his little sister, Irene. They have each other.
The small town of Mary Smokes is in the Brisbane Valley, between the D’Agular Range and Brisbane. It’s beautiful but harsh country, and on the decline. The Mary Smokes boys wander wild across the landscape late at night, particularly along Mary Smokes Creek. Grey becomes one of them and, inevitably, they get up to mischief.
As grown men, not much has changed, though the town is changing about them. Irene is grown, too, and beautiful. Grey’s father makes a foolish choice, one that forces Grey on to bigger risks. A chain of events begins which, although at first unseen, will have terrible consequences.
The creek dries up, development spreads, and the Mary Smokes boys start to look more lost than wild. Irene is the wildest of all, and her connection to the fragile landscape palpable:
“She claimed she could see paths lit for her in the deepest corners of the woods. It was true she seemed to have a map and compass always in her mind, even of country she had not seen. She never became lost or frightened, no matter how far she walked, no matter how late. She knew how to follow the creeks and she knew by the shape of the country where they would lie, like one who had spent years there. She knew the stairways of granite and exposed tree roots in the mountains; the lie of lost and forgotten cemeteries; the wild mulberry bushes and wild orange trees where she harvested fruit in its season” (65).
Irene walks at night, too, and Grey’s fierce protectiveness of her, as she moves into adulthood, threatens his friendship with best mate, Eccleston. Something between them seems off-kilter, but is it?
The relationships between Grey, Irene and Eccleston, are beautifully rendered and compelling. I really enjoyed this haunting, Gothic take on the Australian rural novel, particularly its depiction of a community on the decline and young, masculine friendships. The landscape is an amphitheatre for it all, the drama playing out across its vast spaces.
Holland’s first novel, The Long Night of the Junkmailer (UQP) won the 2006 QLD Premier’s Award for best unpublished manuscript, and was also shortlisted for the Commonwealth Writers Prize. The Mary Smokes Boys is published by Transit Lounge. There’s another book on the way in 2011, Riding the Trains in Japan: Travels in Supermodernity, and a collection of short stories later this year: The Source of the Sound. He is a writer to watch, no doubt.
I was left feeling a tiny bit dissatisfied with the ending of The Mary Smokes Boys, and had a few little niggles about viewpoint, but on the whole thought this a wonderful and refreshing novel. There’s a timelessness to it that will have a broad and long-lasting appeal. It’s the sort of book that reminds you why you write.