But there I was, having selected A.S. Byatt's The Children's Book, to read next, and wading slowly through the first 50 mostly incomprehensible pages, when the Miles Franklin was announced and lo - I already had the book! So with this excellent excuse to abandon A.S. Byatt for the time being I straight away set to reading the one everyone was talking about. As you do.
What to say? It's brilliant, important, original, heart wrenching, harrowing, un-put-downable. Is it fun to read? No. Was I glad when it was over? Too right. Am I glad I read it? Without a doubt.
The narrator is Jimmy Flick, a quirky, desperately needy, 'special needs' boy whose voice and language we soon adapt to even though his words are usually not those of a boy his age. Jimmy is well-intentioned and kind but his world requires different coping strategies which don't always work out well in the eye of others around him.
But this whole family has special needs and each of them is drawn with such accuracy and such compassion that we ache for each of them along the way. Jimmy's mother Paula is a chronic asthmatic with a compulsive eating disorder that makes her obese and physically compromised. She is full of love for Jimmy, for his brother Robby and even for Gavin, her alcoholic husband who beats her up from time to time to vent his frustration at his own powerlessness. And despite his despicable actions, Gavin too elicits some sympathy with his dirty, dead-end job at the Altona refinery and the absence of any better prospects for the future. Gavin doesn't have the kind of patience that living with Jimmy demands so he takes his refuge in whiskey and the mournful songs of Merle Haggard. His wife Paula pays the price. Despite all the burdens they face, there is still a mutual tenderness between these two which surfaces from time to time and we lean into it with them in the vain hope that it might last.
We've all known families like this, especially those who've worked in health, education or welfare, and Sophie Laguna has drawn each of her characters with astonishing insight and empathy. Which didn't make the journey any less harrowing. Thank heavens for the dog, the comparatively stable uncle, and for the return of Robby who is absent for far too long.
And there are some joyous highlights - Jimmy's first fishing trip out to sea, the fabulous go-cart episode with his father.
So I read it very quickly. It's not the kind of story to loll around with on the couch and savour but as a portrait of all the families out there who struggle with disadvantage and personal issues too great to manage, this is a record to read and keep. It waves a red flag against quick judgements about the obese woman, the drunken man and the irritating kid, all of whom cross our paths, and all of whom run as deep and as complex as anyone - as Sophie Laguna has so cleverly shown.
(Sophie Laguna, by the way, is another on the dauntingly impressive list of graduates of the Professional Writing and Editing course at RMIT.)
For now though, it's back to A. S. Byatt for me in the hope that it might soon become even marginally as gripping as The Eye of the Sheep.
Watch this space.
~ * ~eg.