Reviewed by Angela Marie
‘ Normally, when I’ve got Sunny, people are pretty friendly. It’s like having a dog means you can’t be a psychopath, or something. People will talk to a complete stranger if that person has a dog with them, but will cross the street to avoid someone on their own.
But if people think you’re a junkie, all bets are off – even when you have a dog. My theory is they think you’ve got nothing to lose. But that’s actually not true – you’ve got more to lose, I reckon. Because when you haven’t got much, it means when even small things go wrong, they can seem a lot worse.’
In The Rip we meet an unconventional family living in an unconventional place. We meet Anton, the street philosopher who has done his time, our young female narrator, seemingly accepting of the abuse she has suffered from early days, and her dog, the faithful and uncomplaining bull terrier, Sunny. They are not a family in a romantic or kinship way but the need for love and support is acknowledged as a basic driver of human behaviour. Their bonds have been forged by watching out for each other, and surviving together in the harsh world of rough sleeping. They have settled into a pattern of support and acquire money and food as best they can. And operate in time-honoured ways for they also have to feed the urges and the pain within and escape to the bliss of their dependencies. Again and again they are caught in the rip. But their bonds and their caring for each other bind them deeper than the drugs. We read that in Princes Park there is honour among rough sleepers and possessions will be left alone unless one does not return for a few days. Oh, for the warmth of a sleeping bag or blanket. Resources are few and prized.
This novel is securely anchored in place and time. Here we are in contemporary Australia, in Melbourne. We see the homeless companions trudging out of Princes Park, down Hoddle Street and Victoria Street. A nod to Bunnings and Coles and The Big Issue. There is mention of Carlton Gardens and the Exhibition Building and Abbotsford Convent. Later we watch as our narrator begs on the steps of the State Library.The reality of place validates the authenticity of experience.
The authenticity is further cemented by the voice of the narrator, sharing the forms of love, the power of promises and plans for the future. Sharing her story in words so implicit that we know their honesty. Telling Anton’s story as told to her. Painting the distinctions between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Showing us both the human face of policing and the official. Creating a delicate balance between exposition and action. And leading us down to the sliding doors moment, the fateful meeting with Steve, a past acquaintance of Anton. We know that a chance encounter can change destiny.
Picture Steve, gear in pocket, inviting them into his flat, his world, his shots. The bait is set. The hit is assured. All problems can disappear in a beautiful haze but there are rules. Steve’s rules. Steve’s violence, his intensity and the lock on his bedroom door. And an emergence of an inner voice deep within the narrator that senses all is not what it seems. Anton’s voice and advice is resonating inside her head. All is not well. Beware. Where does the money come from? Why is the neighbour so concerned? What is the strange smell? Is it a meth lab? How can they stay safe and when can they run? Where is Anton?
The Rip pulls you under and tosses your emotions around like flotsam bobbing up and down on the waves. You feel hope, despair, fear, disappointment and compassion. You feel drained, shocked and disgusted. But you will return to hope time and again because you will be willing the characters to be safe, to survive, to catch a break. To live happily ever after with Sunny.
It is a challenging device, this exclusive use of first person narrative within a text. The author, Mark Brandi, has successfully employed this and formed his narrator into a believable person. A person who says it like it is. A person whose name is withheld from us, piquing interest. And when we learn her name, is it true or true for the future? She is a person we want to protect and care for as much as she loves and protects Sunny to the best of her abilities and resources. Like her we admire Anton for his principles. We want to see them find that flat, and sleep dry and safe. Will this come to pass?
The ending is sobering and powerful. The text is simple, economical and emotional without manipulation, yet you will be moved. Like Wimmera, Mark Brandi’s award-winning 2017 book, The Rip does not back away from issues that confront.
The Rip is a compelling read, a crime novel that is just as much a psychological and sociological study. It is a novel that takes your thoughts far beyond the pages of the book and confronts you. We know youth homelessness is rife and growing. The statistics are sickening. The Salvation Army estimates that there are 44 000 children and young people without a place to call home, 17 000 of them under 12 years of age. According to Brisbane Youth Services, there are about 4 500 young people sleeping rough in Queensland and “70% left home to escape family violence, child abuse or family breakdown.” As did our young narrator whose homes were transient and not always safe.
We know that funding for homelessness programs can and does get sacrificed on political whim. We also know that, regardless of age, there is no substitute for a safe home. The Rip was eagerly anticipated and although the content can be disturbing, it is a read that is hard to put down. Who knows where this may lead?
Mark Brandi, a former policy advisor and criminal justice graduate, continues to garner awards for his writings. Wimmera received the British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger and was named Best Debut by the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards and has been shortlisted for other awards. Mark’s work appears in journals nationally and internationally, including The Big Issue, The Age and The Guardian. Mark was born in Italy and grew up in rural Australia. These are significant influences on his writings. He now resides in Melbourne.
By Mark Brandi
ISBN 978 0 7336 4112 1