Leah is old and in a home. She wants to tell her story before she dies and the opportunity comes when Carly appears with her request for memories for her school project. Leah seizes this chance to tell the horrific story of how her father killed himself with a shotgun in the barn when she was five. Leah comforted herself with an imaginary friend Adam who appeared in the orchard of the farm. Over the years the farm shrinks as her mother sells off the land, and the two live in isolation, a life formed by an extreme religious belief. Leah is punished by being shut in the barn after professing that the book Oliver Twist was the best present she had ever had, a statement her mother considers a betrayal. Her mother tore the book into pieces but Leah and Adam pieced it together although some pages were always missing. Eventually her mother discovers Adam’s existence and Leah is forced to choose between them.
This is an astounding and beautifully written book. Barry Jonsberg’s portrayal of what it is like to be old is heartbreakingly true, tumbling out of the beautiful prose; ‘Sometimes I can’t find my mind, let alone change it,’ says Leah when Carly asks if she has changed her mind about talking to her. Leah’s tragic existence with a mother whose mind has been warped by pictures of the devil and sin, the solitary nature of their life with no mention of friends or family to help the child, emerge from the pages without drama, seemingly normal. The unlikely relationship between Leah and Carly which becomes all important to Leah, being the thing she must do before her mind goes and she dies, grows as the story progresses. At times it is difficult to ascertain whether Adam is a product of Leah’s imagination or real, such is the skill of Jonsberg’s story. But her love for him is real and her knowledge she will be reunited with him at the end of her life is strong.
On his website Barry Jonsberg writes of wanting to tell a story involving a tulpa, a kind of personal hallucination meaning the walker in the Himalayas is not alone, there is someone walking beside them. Adam is that tulpa for Leah, enabling her to survive her barren existence, and even giving her the courage to give him up.
This Australian novel first published in 2011 was the winner of the Queensland Premier’s Literary Award, and I would think would garner more awards as it reaches a wider public.