JENNY ACKLAND The Secret Son. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
This charming and inventive first novel is audaciously told and richly woven.
Growing up near Beechworth in the mid-1880s, James Kelly inhabits a small but blissful world that revolves around his adoring mother, his favourite picture book, the bull in the paddock (prone to charging if James lingers too long in the field), the hum of his mother’s bees in their hives and the sweet scent and taste of honey.
As James grows up and goes to school, he slowly becomes aware of what’s missing from his life – a father. Madela, his mother, refuses to tell him anything about his father’s identity, other than warning him to pay no attention to playground gossip.
When his mother dies suddenly, James is set adrift, travelling to Melbourne, finding work and falling in unrequited love with a beautiful, independent woman. War breaks out, and despite his peaceful nature, James enlists and is sent to Gallipoli. Later, as the campaign comes to an end, he is left behind in the evacuation, his life saved by a young Turkish soldier who pulls him from the trenches and takes him to his village, Hayat, to recover.
Nearly a century later, in the 1990s, 23-year-old Cem Keloğlu is dissatisfied with his life in Melbourne. He is popular but unfocused and a lingering indifference has settled on him. Having grown up with his grandfather’s stories of idyllic Hayat, his village back in Turkey, he decides to see Hayat himself – but to his surprise, his grandfather and father are set against the idea.
On the plane to Turkey, Cem meets Harry, an insufferable Australian historian who is also travelling to Hayat. Reluctantly, Cem agrees to act as Harry’s translator. As the two approach the remote mountainside village, Harry finally confides in Cem the bizarre theory that’s brought him all the way to Hayat – he believes that bushranger Ned Kelly had a son who fought at Gallipoli and spent the rest of his life in Turkey.
Waiting for Cem at Hayat is Berna – an elderly rug weaver who tells Cem she’s been expecting him – and whispers of a dark secret in the village’s history; a generations-old debt that Cem doesn’t understand, but is somehow required to atone for.
Like the rugs woven by the women of Hayat, Jenny Ackland’s debut novel The Secret Son is an intricate creation. Moving backwards and forwards in time between James and Cem, the narrative unrolls slowly, gradually disclosing more and more of its pattern to reveal the dark sequence of events that connect the two.
There’s a pleasing kind of almost-symmetry about The Secret Son. Attentive readers will be rewarded with motifs that are repeated through the book, and the ways in which James’s and Cem’s lives subtly echo each other. When we first meet Cem, he’s described transfixing women in nightclubs with his good looks:
’Yeah, it’s pronounced Jem,’ he’d say. ‘The c’s like a j.’ He’d run a hand through his hair and look the other person dead in the face, legs open, jeans tight. Girls loved his name.
Meanwhile, as James adjusts to his new life in Hayat, he soon becomes simply ‘Jim’ to the villagers. Cem and Jim – even the names sound alike.
However, while Ackland draws many similarities between the two men, she gives them distinctly different personalities. James is gentle, intelligent and relentlessly optimistic. Even finding himself alone in the abandoned trenches of Gallipoli, he doesn’t give in to despair. Ackland tells us simply: ‘He couldn’t deny it; he had been left behind.’
On the other hand, when we first meet Cem, Ackland aptly refers to him as ‘kind of a shrug’. Although kind-hearted, Cem buzzes with the frustrated energy of someone trapped by his own inertia; a restlessness that follows, or perhaps chases, him all the way to Hayat.
The Secret Son is, in part, a coming-of-age novel, but at the same time, Ackland doesn’t deal in clichéd sudden epiphanies. For both James and Cem, the process of growing up is a long and internal one, with both men having to face the secrets they’ve inherited and to make their own peace with this knowledge.
Set across two generations, with a first-person narrator whom we meet halfway through the novel, and told in short vignettes that jump from character to character, The Secret Son is an intense and complicated novel. Ackland handles this complex narrative with exacting care as she moves between James’s and Cem’s timelines. However, occasionally, there’s simply a little bit too much going on at once, and some of the novel’s finer details are easy to miss. But at the same time, the crowd of characters and Ackland’s intricate plot are a hefty part of what makes this novel memorable.
Jenny Ackland’s The Secret Son is a charming and inventive first novel that flirts with history without ever letting facts get in the way of what is essentially a great story – audaciously told and richly woven – about growing up, fitting in and moving on; about stepping out of the shadows of the past and finding your own way.
Jenny Ackland The Secret Son Allen & Unwin 2015 PB 336pp, $29.99
Michelle McLaren is a Melbourne-based copywriter and reviewer who writes about books at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).
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