The Fell by Robert Jenkins
What an unexpected and excellent read; enjoyable, fast paced and gripping, sometimes brutal and sometimes gentle, always darkly humorous.
This is a book about teenagers written for an adult audience. It is narrated in the first person and we never learn the name of the central character, nor the time or place in which the novel is set. There are some clues, but I don’t think they are important because the story is brought alive by your own experiences and you will have places that you recall that can fit this picture of a city called Cutter. You will supply your own times and locations.
The story begins when our narrator is a young boy. In the long summer holiday he goes with his father to a Lido, where the father is a lifeguard and a hero to the young boy. Family life at home, where there is an older sister who inhabits her copy of Anne of Green Gables, and days at the Lido are beautifully painted and have the quality of childhood memories. You feel the closeness of the characters and begin to understand them. All this is blown apart when the sister is arrested, falsely accused of shoplifting, but lashes out with a nail file and wounds a policeman. When she is sent to prison, family life implodes and we follow the journey of the narrator who is sent to a remote, spartan boys’ school where difficult cases are gathered up to learn the harshness of discipline.
What follows are years of growing up without the love of parents, where boys learn to take anything they need from the people around them. Learning to survive, and in the narrator’s case thrive, in these hostile surroundings. A fellowship and camaraderie grows between a small group of boys. They have each other’s backs and this allows them to gain new skills and develop friendships.
This life is wonderfully drawn, with moments of fun and humour, but also sadness. People leave, people die and tricks are played. It is all realistic, narrated in the voice of a teenager, with all the emotions and reasoning of that teenager, and that makes it authentic. Staff at the school hardly figure in the narrative, and are mainly objects of hate or ridicule. One teacher stands out, Mister Solomon Sesay, who has also had a rough life in which he too has suffered and been picked on. The narrator describes the impact he has:
“I actually learned things from him without even realising it, which is a rare thing in any school day, and sometimes I wasn’t quite sure exactly what I had learned but I could feel a kind of waking up in my head like little electric pulses firing off and bits of my brain lighting up and trying to make sense of his lesson because some part of my mind kind of grasped it and the rest was flopping around trying to get a handle on it.”
One of the boys at The Fell has marionettes which are dressed in dinner suits or silk pyjamas. When one comes to sleep in the narrator’s room, their owner talks about them:
“ ‘They don’t sleep, not softly like us, not peacefully. There is no calm repose. See… their faces are tense, screwed up, frowning like they’re holding back a scream… a long terrible scream… But they don’t scream… they take our screams and swallow them up.’ I wished straight off he hadn’t said a word because now I had a shiver and he smiled and the marionette turned its head to look at me, white faced with a red spot on each cheek, and nodded. ‘Don’t be afraid. They are our friends.’ "
Towards the end of the book our narrator turns a corner, and there is a sense that some schoolwork actually gets done. I loved the way this paragraph sums this up:
“I even started to walk more softly and smile at adults more often and some days I even did school work and said thank you to teachers so they were shocked and told me I was welcome. I tried to use more words from my dictionary and I surprised them teachers with the vocabulary I used in my schoolbooks and my use of correct grammar and punctuation too, and punctuation has nothing to do with being on time. If you don’t believe me you can look it up.”
The story has been compared to Lord of the Flies and I would agree that there are parallels with the wild behavior of the boys from The Fell. There is violence, death and even attempted murder. Boys make and drink alcohol and grow drugs. Things don’t go well for a number of the characters. They don’t get away with crimes where it might be possible to see mitigating circumstances. But some of this darkness is offset by more tender and humane moments, where there is friendship and warmth. There is a love story too, where the narrator falls for Melody Grace. She has a dark past, but also a warm heart and it is hard not to enjoy the role she plays as siren and teacher to the young man. She is a shining light, a hope for a better future.
I can’t say enough about how much I enjoyed this book for its wonderful mix of hard and brutal, soft and humorous. It feels modern yet it is set in an indeterminate time and location. A brilliant book which deserves a wide audience.
Reviewer: Marcus Hobson
Published by Red Door Publishing. RRP $31