Hartnett’s Thursday’s Child split our book group down the middle; or, at least, down several different middles over several different aspects of the novel. We were especially concerned about whether Tin, the narrator’s brother, was a ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ child. In Surrender, Hartnett is playing some similar, deadly serious, games.
It would be easy to give too much away, and equally easy to suggest a single reading of a book in which ambiguity infuses every paragraph. So this review may be as opaque as the novel itself might be for some young readers. It is ‘about’ a 20-year-old man dying – or is he dying? Where he is dying, who visits him and who cares for him are matters to be reviewed as the pages go by. There are some desperate secrets in his past – or so his parents say. He lives – or used to live – in a small Australian town where nothing much of consequence happened before – well, before the most terrible of the events that happened in his past. The narrative is initially carried by Gabriel, the dying man. But then other chapters are recounted through the voice of Finnigan – and who Finnigan is exactly, raises one of the many intriguing questions which will determine different readings of the book.
I’ll try to be a little less opaque and offer a few ‘facts’. The town is torn apart by a series of fires laid by an arsonist. ‘Surrender’ is a dog who belongs to Gabriel, or to Finnigan, or maybe to both. Gabriel, though this is not his real name, is raised by relentlessly unloving, joyless parents; his older brother has severe mental disabilities and it is his death, in which Gabriel is implicated, which is shaping the dying man’s present. Finnigan is the wild, free ranging boy who… but now I’ve strayed beyond the boundaries of certainties.
This is a remarkable novel – or, I’d rather say, prose poem. Hartnett writes and thinks through poetic images. Her language is as subtly mesmeric as that of any writer currently published for young adults. The selection – though it may well be more intuitive than that suggests – of the individual word is at once precise and many-layered, so that the page constantly invites re-reading and reflection. Try reading the first chapter aloud. The book might well defeat or irritate adolescents and adults who read in a hurry; they won’t get past page 30 or so. It’s not so much a cross-over novel as a marvellous book for those who enjoy the ambiguity and riddling nature of metaphor.