When I was in primary school there was a book I simultaneously loved and feared. It was a picture book featuring Australian bush animals one of whom, the echidna, was ostracised by the others because of his appearance. Determined to overcome the other animals’ hostility the echidna invited them to his birthday party. None of them RSVP’d. The echidna stood at his empty letterbox, the tears streaming down his face, a picture of loneliness and grief.
The book caused me terrible distress. Yet I was compelled to read it over and over, as if through my sadness I demonstrated my kinship to the echidna. Or as if by dint of exposure, the book would lose its power over me. Since then I’ve encountered half a dozen books I think of as ‘echidna books’; the ones that cleave me with sorrow and impotent rage but that I can’t turn away from. Books like Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Ian McKewan’s Atonement, Nadeem Aslam’s The Wasted Vigil and now Julienne Van Loon’s Harmless.
This superb novella is told over the space of a single day as young Amanda and her elderly companion Rattuwat attempt to reach Acacia prison in time for a scheduled visit with Amanda’s dad Dave. Amanda and Rattuwat are only tenuously connected. Rattuwat is the Thai father of Dave’s de facto wife Sua, now deceased. He has gone into debt to attend Sua’s funeral in Australia. The borrowed car Rattuwat is driving breaks down, prompting an increasingly desperate Amanda to abandon the vehicle and walk. Rattuwat follows the child across fields she insists are a ‘short cut’ before he succumbs to heat exhaustion and disorientation. Amanda goes on alone.
The text is suffused with a quiet sense of generational inevitability. Dave never really stood a chance. As a child he caught tadpoles in the local creek to trade for other kids’ lunches before moving on to a criminal adulthood. He loves his kids and provides stability of a sort. But the only routine he knows is institutional so when his personal life with Sua crumbles his instincts guide him back towards the familiarity of jail.
Van Loon’s research for the novel took her into prisons where, she says,
…this pattern of returning to the familiar, if unforgiving “protection” of prison life is there in offenders of all ages. Convicts have most often experienced pretty unpredictable patterns in childhood, and this carries over into adulthood, especially when drug and alcohol abuse and related mental illnesses come into the mix. Prison, in this context, is the only surety.
Effectively orphaned by her father’s sentence, Amanda has the terrible wisdom of kids who’ve seen too much, too early. In one scene she resists the urge to unburden herself to a kindly farmer’s wife who has given her temporary shelter because it may lead to contact with ‘the Appropriate People…Somebody else might come for her then.’ Of her characters Van Loon says that they ‘are each denied the freedoms many of us take for granted as full and valid Australian citizens. Under these circumstances, what kinds of futures are realistically available to them?’
That question about futures haunts the book. What will become of Amanda during the six years her father serves his sentence? How will Rattuwat, down to his last few Australian dollars, navigate the strangeness of Australia let alone surmount his grief? Can Dave survive his incarceration with his sanity and soul intact to provide belated parental stability to Amanda and her half-brother Ant? How should we, as a society, respond to people like Dave and Amanda?
These are big questions but this novella more than handles them. Indeed, it is remarkable that so much thematic weight is compacted in so slight a volume. Van Loon is an avid novella reader and admits that she ‘vary rarely opt[s] for reading an epic or a series or any of the hugely lengthy ironic works (think Infinite Jest) that have been popular in recent years. For me, less is more.’ She hopes that ‘Harmless might introduce a few new contemporary readers to the beauty of this wonderful form.’ It certainly deserves to.
S.A. Jones is the author of the novel Red Dress Walking. She holds a PhD in history from the University of Western Australia and currently works as a regulatory analyst.