The Better Son by Katherine Johnson
Ventura Press 2016
Large format paperback
In 2002, after being away for much of his life, Kip returns alone to his family’s farm in Mole Creek, Tasmania. His mother is dead, his father – suffering from dementia – living in a nursing home, and his wife and young son are back in Amsterdam with her own, dying father. Only Squid, the old farm hand, remains on the property, but Kip avoids him. He is here with a purpose: to find his brother Tommy, who disappeared when Kip was nine years old, and atone.
I am automatically drawn to books written in or about places, people and events in Tasmania, my home state. I love this island, it has a tight hold of my heart, and after many years away I was drawn back as surely as fate. It is a rich, diverse landscape, roughened by harsh histories, home to the Gothic of its British colonial heritage as much as it is to an ancient Indigenous legacy – I can well imagine that it is much like Briton itself, with its older history of Celts and Saxons and Druids. It is an island with a tangible sense of time and timelessness: a paradox that makes utter sense when you live here. And because so much of it is unmapped, unknowable and frankly downright eery, it is ripe for imaginative work in the British tradition (I am still waiting for an Indigenous-authored novel but I don’t know of one, and being of British ancestry myself, any understanding I feel I have of their stories and relationship with the land is automatically tainted and an unwanted act of appropriation. Such is the fraught discourse we find ourselves enmeshed in here).
The Better Son is Queensland-born Johnson’s second novel and her sense of place is vividly realised. The cave in the book, Kubla (after Coleridge’s poem Kubla Kahn), is modelled on the nearby Marakoopa cave in the Karst National Park, though there is a cave called Kubla as well. Marakoopa was first discovered by two brothers, James and Harry Byard, who kept it a secret for several years until it was opened for tourism. There is another famous cave nearby, called King Solomon’s Cave, which I visited on Boxing Day last year. It doesn’t have the ginormous cathedral caves of Marakoopa but it is beautiful, splendid and amazing all the same. Johnson says that her novel is a “fictional fusion of the two ideas: one of the world’s most incredible caves and two small boys” who keep its discovery a secret. The small town of Mole Creek in Tasmania’s north – not far from where I grew up – is rich farming land, but it sits on porous limestone country where sinkholes can open up quite suddenly and randomly. Underneath, it is an extensive cave network millions of years old. The idea of disappearing into a sinkhole or getting lost in a cave system is an aspect of Tasmanian Gothic, itself part of Australian Gothic – think Picnic at Hanging Rock as a good example.
Kip’s story begins in the summer of 1952, and it is one of the strengths of Johnson’s writing that he and his family are so believable. Perhaps his father, Harold, verges on cliché, but as an archetype veteran of WWII as well as an angry farmer, he rings true. Kip’s mother, Jess, is educated and loving and the only thing standing between Kip and the father who seems to hate him. His older brother Tommy, on the other hand, is beloved by Harold and can do no wrong. Still, the brothers are close, and the adventure of descending (by knotted rope) into a vast lightless cave and then exploring it is the highlight of Kip’s summer. It ends in tragedy, though, when twelve-year-old Tommy decides to explore a small tunnel and is never seen again.
If the characters are tautly drawn, the landscape is represented as a slumbering, other-worldly entity, breathtakingly inhuman and utterly uncaring, yet with a presence both awe-inspiring and ominous.
They picked their way through a forest of stone. Stalagmites connected with the stalactites from the ceiling to form giant columns as tall as city buildings; others, the height of men, were like the frozen soldiers of some ancient army. Kip held his candle high above his head, but the darkness devoured the light. [p.36]
The boys name it Kubla, after the Coleridge poem their mother taught them, and the parallels between the poem and Kip’s story are made clear throughout the novel. The depiction of the porous, fragile landscape holding its secrets close is used by Johnson as an analogy for the troubled family, an analogy that is both fitting and, at times, spelt out too often. Herein lies the overall weakness of Johnson’s novel: it tells more than it shows. There is a distinct “accounting” style to the storytelling as it faithfully follows Kip, after the tragedy and into adulthood, but without the detail and scenes that made his childhood so engaging to read about. Kip is sent to boarding school, then he goes to university, then he studies insects, then he goes to the Netherlands for his Ph.D to work with saving the tulips, then he meets Isle and so on. This recounting of Kip’s life is woven amongst a recounting of Jess and Squid, who become lovers until her death. It’s a short novel; I actually think it would have been stronger if those later years were handled differently, perhaps with clearer, lengthier scenes and less telling. It felt rushed, those chapters, as if the author were just accounting for those lost years until she could get Kip back to Mole Creek.
The final scene only makes the previous years feel even more rushed: Kip’s descent into Kubla and hunt for his brother’s body is nicely drawn out and tempered. His psychological descent into childhood – which verges on insanity – feels true as well as tragic. It’s an emotional journey through the dark caves with their hidden, breath-taking beauty, a journey that provides Kip, now fifty-nine, a chance to decide whether he will be forever formed by what happened fifty years ago, or if he will break free of his own guilt, the sense of responsibility that has shackled him for so long. Ultimately, it is Squid who saves him from himself and reminds Kip of his own nine-year-old son: the idea that life keeps going and you have a choice as to what kind of person you will be, and that your responsibilities change with time. Now, as a father himself, he has the opportunity to do a much better job of it than Harold did with him.
Squid is easily the best character here, though I did like Kip and Jess as well. My husband read this book at the same time (we have our own copies – we treat our books differently so it’s best that way!) and Squid was his favourite character as well. Through Squid we get another perspective – he is a third-person focaliser for some chapters, providing us with greater insights and details after Kip leaves Tasmania. Squid is a ‘salt of the earth’ character, a quiet, patient, loving man who looks after the farmland just as tenderly as he cares for Jess after her diagnosis. He provides a more politically-charged glimpse into farming practices – spraying versus using plants and insects as natural insecticides (which to him is common sense, while Kip works so hard convincing people of its worth), and the damaging forestry and land-clearing practices still carried out in the state today. So it’s easy to like Squid, as our philosophies seem to align.
The Better Son is a wonderful story that, for all it felt rushed in the telling and, at times, a bit obvious, shows the sickening damage that some parenting can have on children, with far-reaching repercussions. The secrets themselves, which poison Kip’s soul, are only a side-effect of the family dynamics, yet Johnson is careful not to make Harold an inhuman villain. At its peak, it made me cry, and that cannot happen without an emotional connection to characters and a story that is believable and poignant.