Imagine being raised on a remote property, all alone with only your father and a small herd of sheep for company. You know that there are others out there, but they are infected with a disease that wiped out most of humanity, and if they find you, they will kill you.
Such is the premise of The Others, the third novel from Mark Brandi, bestselling author of Wimmera and The Rip. It is another engaging read; a story that hinges on a masterful thread of sinister unease running throughout.
Jacob is 11 years old when his father presents him with a diary as a birthday gift. He begins cataloguing his strange life living in the Australian bush, in a ramshackle cottage with his father. As the only other person in his life, Jacob’s father is both his only source of joy – heralded by a smile so wide Jacob can glimpse his gold teeth – and also fear, of both the “bendy stick” and his father’s “soft eyes”. But he also has questions, namely: who are the terrible “others” he has been taught to fear?
Brandi has a genuine talent for writing child perspectives, and has created a complex, engaging and authentic voice in Jacob, crafted using the child’s own words in diary entries. The flip side of this choice of structure, however, is that the development of Jacob’s father is inevitably more shallow. The reader’s view is restricted to what Jacob sees; that means that the edginess and uncertainty is mingled with the unreliability of a child’s perceptions, which at times results in inconsistent characterisation.
There is a lot going on in The Others – the impending doom of a nationwide plague, the sensation that the world beyond Jacob’s small farm life is heaving with unrest, juxtaposed with the tedious minutiae of his daily reality of feeding sheep, killing mice, and reading the encyclopedia as his daily lessons.
At times the balance between these different paces and atmospheres is untidy. The first two thirds of the book oscillate between feeling slow and repetitive, and building the tension that propels the narrative forward. The buildup is necessary to paint a vivid picture of the level of isolation and insularity in Jacob’s life, but it does drag somewhat, and could risk losing some readers.
Jacob writes in his diary and is scared of his father. He hears other voices in the house at night, and is afraid of what they could mean. He loves his sheep, and is traumatised when lambs are killed by a frightening but unknown force. His father makes him stab mice to death with a fence picket.
These scenes are ugly and uncomfortable, reminiscent of the uneasy drudgery in Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way Of Things. The tedium and grotesque imagery is necessary to build suspense, and the growing need for Jacob to have his questions answered, but perhaps a balance could have been struck to allow more space for the second phase of the story to unfold. After Jacob hits the tipping point, the novel seems to rush and slide to a quick end. The novel’s structure – a series of diary entries – also impedes Brandi’s ability to reveal Jacob’s transformation with more subtlety, making it harder to show his protagonist’s emotional journey through imagery or dialogue.
Despite the slight discrepancies in pace, Brandi’s writing is as eloquent and subtle as his past two novels, with every sentence clearly considered and chosen for a reason. There is beautiful imagery in this book, including the charming and the monstrous (Jacob’s descriptions of the injured fox he nurses are stunning, painting a vivid picture of the stunted and wild thing; equally compelling are his descriptions of the mangled bodies of his lambs, killed in the night).
The strength in Brandi’s writing only seems to be increasing with each book, as well as his ability to move between genres. Where Wimmera was more straight crime fiction, and The Rip moved into literary fiction, The Others somewhat combines the two, bringing together genuinely beautiful writing with a plot that is unexpected and unsettling.
• The Others by Mark Brandi is out now through Hachette