DEBRA JOPSON Oliver of the Levant. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
Oliver of the Levant is a wise and nuanced coming-of-age story set in troubled times.
Like many 15-year-old boys in the late 1960s, Oliver Lawrence has a poster of Jimi Hendrix on his bedroom wall, and he’d rather hang around Bondi Beach than go to school.
But unlike most teenagers, Oliver has a mother who is a heroin addict. Since he was eight, Oliver has been responsible for raising his younger brother Jess, learning to drag a wobbly kitchen chair to the stove so he can reach the saucepan to heat up tinned baked beans. Oliver’s father is a pilot in the Middle East, and he’s often absent for weeks on end. Though he’s aware of Oliver’s mother’s drug abuse, he conveniently never sees things at their worst:
Dad’d punch my shoulder as he left. ‘You’re in charge now.’ Deepening his voice, as if it was a joke.
But all that’s about to change, because Oliver and Jess are leaving Bondi for good to live with their father and Babette, his glamorous new wife, in Beirut. Oliver has no idea what to expect in the Levant. Everything he knows about the Middle East he’s learned from repeated viewings of Lawrence of Arabia, his favourite film. All that matters to Oliver is that in Beirut, he’ll be part of a family again.
Arriving in Lebanon in the middle of winter, Oliver, Jess and Babette are immediately made aware that things work very differently in their new home. On the way from the airport, their car is stopped by soldiers asking questions and pointing guns. Israeli jets scream overhead on their daily patrol moments after they arrive at their new apartment. ‘We’ve just caught Beirut at an interesting moment,’ Oliver’s father explains, trying desperately to appease Babette.
Babette’s relationship with Oliver’s father is a tenuous one, built on a cycle of wild partying and equally wild arguments. But Oliver has other things on his mind – like Sabine. Oliver falls painfully in love with Sabine the moment he sees her, not noticing the sparkling engagement ring on her finger. She’s already been promised to Abdo, a local warlord. To Oliver, this is a minor setback.
There’s also Oliver’s friend, Mahmoud – or Ringo, as he likes to be called. He’s a curly-haired Palestinian teenager who keeps a Kalashnikov in his room, hidden in a wardrobe covered with cartoon stickers. Ringo’s uncles are training him to fight for Palestine. Apart from Jimi Hendrix, Oliver can’t imagine anyone cooler.
As bombings, snipers and evacuations become more frequent in a city moving inexorably towards civil war, Oliver has to decide whose side he’s on. The adults in his life are no help, more concerned with chasing their own pleasure than meeting his needs. It’s up to Oliver, and the wrong decision could have tragic consequences.
Oliver of the Levant is Walkley-Award-winning journalist Debra Jopson’s fiction debut, and draws on the two years she spent in Lebanon as a teenager. Written with a journalist’s eye for detail, the novel is woven from rich memories of the scents and sounds of Beirut in the late 1960s, but it never loses the feel of fiction, or gives way to nostalgia. It’s remarkably clear-eyed, and for a novel that pushes around heavy topics like drug abuse, car bombings and teenage warlords, it’s infused with an unexpected humour.
Jopson’s complex characters are another welcome surprise. Setting plays such an integral role in Oliver of the Levant, and yet its characters are easily its strongest feature. Babette, Oliver’s stepmother, occupies the novel’s centre. She’s a former model who drifts through the pages in a cloud of perfume, a gold-tipped Dunhill cigarette in one hand and a glass of gin in the other. She’s much younger than Oliver’s father and Oliver is fascinated by her – especially when he discovers Babette has a secret she’s been hiding from her new family. When she’s not around, Oliver sneaks into the room Babette shares with his father to read her letters and diaries.
The complicated, delicately crafted characters aren’t always easy to like. Babette isn’t above flirting with Oliver to get what she wants. Lachlan, Oliver’s father, has the same rugged good looks and winning personality as Oliver’s brother Jess, but he’s prone to solving problems with his wallet – or with his fists.
In contrast, the novel’s Lebanese characters aren’t constructed with quite the same level of detail as Oliver’s family. Though we are allowed a few brief glimpses of Sabine’s troubled home life, and there are hints of the intense psychological trauma of Ringo’s training, the inner lives of these characters are never particularly clear. They’re a mystery to Oliver, at least, and it’s through his often naïve, teenage perspective that the novel is narrated. There are times this confusion works in the novel’s favour, allowing Oliver to become caught up in a series of events he doesn’t understand. But at other times, this restricted perspective widens the gap between the reader and the novel and becomes frustrating.
It’s when Oliver receives a camera as a gift and begins photographing his experience of Beirut that the novel finally begins to open up:
I photographed my neighbourhood, where fresh concrete walls climbed skyward, leaving crumbs of soil around their edges, as if they were plants pushing up out of the weeds. I knew every speck of view from seven floors up. If I pressed my nose against my bedroom window, I could follow the bony backs of cats stalking invisible prey in the giant hole gouged from orange clay, which we called ‘the quarry’ … The quarry reeked of cats’ piss and rotting fruit mingled with sweet, poisonous exhaust fumes. It didn’t stop people from climbing to the quarry top on the evening to watch the sun drop into the sea. I’d train my lens on them as they munched snacks and danced to tinny taped songs, while their faces turned yellow, then red.
To this point, Oliver has been wrapped in his own thoughts, and it’s through photography that he discovers an acceptable way to observe not just the people around him, but his new city. In these impressive passages, seen through the lens of Oliver’s camera, Jopson’s writing is at its unfettered best, allowing her the chance to show us what she can do.
As Oliver’s time in Beirut comes to an end, the novel changes pace suddenly, lurching forward into a faster-paced narrative that covers years of Oliver’s life within the space of a few short chapters. It’s a jarring shift that leaves this otherwise engaging novel finishing on a somewhat unsatisfying note.
Oliver of the Levant is a wise, nuanced coming-of-age story set in troubled times, told by a teenage character who is himself in a state of unrest. Finding himself caught between the conflicting interests of his father and Babette, Sabine and Ringo, even Oliver’s puberty-stricken body seems to be rebelling, betraying him at every opportunity.
As anyone who’s ever been a teenager knows, growing up is a civil war all of its own.
Michelle McLaren is a Melbourne-based reviewer and freelance copywriter. She writes about books at Book to the Future.
Debra Jopson Oliver of the Levant Random House 2016 PB 368pp $32.99
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