I am so pleased to be part of Legend Press’s Blog Tour for the launch of Mark Brandi’s Into The River**! Instead of 3 books, 3 points, I’ve decided to review this book separately as part of the tour – so it’s one book, 3 (rather long) points! Luckily, this book more than deserves its own review.
Previously published in Australia as ‘Wimmera’, and winning Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards, Into The River gets its UK release with a stunning new cover and an intriguing premise…
***BELOW REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS***
-Into The River is one of those books that haunts you after you finish it. My brain was filling in detail long after I’d put down my Kindle, characters returning, stories unwinding, emotions clicking into place. Brandi plays with the narrative, giving a little, then wrenching us away in a jolt, allowing us just enough detail for our minds to build, build, and slowly, horrifyingly, make connections. The subject matter is hard-hitting and not an easy read – dealing with grooming, child sexual abuse, physical abuse and suicide, and at times is incredibly graphic.
In Part 1, we follow Ben and Fab, two pre-teen boys, on a journey through hot, dry Australian summers, camp outs, cricket games, sexual awakenings and school bullying. The writing is urgent, brutal, coarse; as many things are at that age – however, I felt this was intended. The story isn’t comfortable. The writing isn’t comfortable. But it makes it all the more evocative as Brandi begins to build the tension against a dry, sweltering backdrop.
I found myself pulled along on an uneasy current, knowing something was coming. When his former neighbours move away after their daughter Daisy dies from suicide, a new neighbour, Ronnie, moves in. The story focuses on the friendship between Fab and Ben to begin with, showcasing a strong bond between them – Ben sticking up for Fab when he is subjected to racist bullying at school, the tension between Fab and his father, who is a violent man. Through trips ‘yannying’ to camping out, we see the importance of each boy to the other at a time of uncertainty, sexual awakening and adventure. It is this bond that we see begin to loosen, as Ben is asked by his neighbour Ronnie to help out with some odd jobs to earn some spare money. Innocuous enough to begin with, soon we feel that something is hammering at our realisation, just out of sight. Something is wrong. We feel it. And in the narrative, Fab feels it too.
-Ronnie gives Ben a pornographic magazine, but he and Fab soon realise the content is more violent and bizarre than the mainstream. A little hint like this set alarm bells ringing – soon we find ourselves watching helplessly as Ronnie begins the process of grooming Ben, and we, and Fab, slowly begin to lose him.
The final straw is when Ronnie takes Ben and Fab on a trip, then refuses to drop Ben back home. We can see that Fab knows what is wrong, trying his best to get Ben to come with him – and we see Ben’s justification for staying with Ronnie, the naive belief that he will be dropped home next, the discomfort when Ronnie instead takes him to an abandoned shack miles from their home town on the pretense of picking up some tools. But here, we are left, our minds spinning with anger and helplessness.
Brandi deals with this process not by giving us tons of detail, but instead becoming more sparse in the story, conjuring gaps in the description where Ben should have been. We see him bragging about expensive new trainers he has been given. We see a conversation between him and Fab, where Ben tells Fab he’s now going to a different school in the future. We know what’s happening, but it’s up to us to fill in the detail. As Ronnie’s grooming of Ben progresses, he is now increasingly removed from the storyline, as he increasingly retreats from his friends and life.
– Years in the future, Fab is working at a supermarket, generally dissatisfied with life. His father has passed away and he find himself drinking to excess and taking drugs. We know nothing of the intervening period, there is no mention of Ben, save for one memory of a party in their late teens, where they stumble upon one another. At the party they had got on well, until Fab mentioned Ronnie. The scene ends with Ben punching Fab and leaving him. Back in the present, Fab is in love with a local barmaid, but still doesn’t seem to have any future plans. Soon, Fab’s workmate Afriki offers him a new job, a fresh start. Fab deliberates and decides to take the job. But before he leaves, a police officer arrives at his door, and we begin to learn a little more of the intervening years as Fab is taken in for questioning. Through the interview, we discover what happened to Ben, all those years ago. I felt the anger of Ben and Fab, as the story was retold through Fab’s eyes – although the murder of Ronnie and his subsequent dismemberment was still shocking. We see the scene through a surreal lens of the culmination of years of abuse and anger. Fab has discovered some photos in Ronnie’s shack, and although we never learn what they depicted, we can take a good guess.
Now, years later, Ben and Fab admit to what they did to Ronnie. We leave the story after hearing their court verdicts, wondering if the punishment is justified, what it must have been like to live that reality, and what hope there is for their futures. I loved this book – the dark material was dealt with in a novel way – the sparseness reflecting the withdrawal from life contrasting with the rich detail in emotionally charged moments. The language was raw, crude, and I think meant to jar, especially the moments where Ben first looks at the porn magazine and his thoughts about the women he is attracted to. Whether this is typical of an 11-year old, I’m unsure, but the graphic description lends to the atmosphere of the story – the abhorrent grooming of a young boy, the language of paedophilia, the pure shock and disgust we are meant to feel. Despite this, Into The River is one of my favourite books for a long time – uncomfortable reading, but so important.
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