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Posted on 2 Aug 2022 in Fiction |

HOLDEN SHEPPARD The Brink. Reviewed by Michael Jongen

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Holden Sheppard’s second novel is more Lord of the Flies than teen exploitation story.

Holden Sheppard’s Invisible Boys (2019) was a stunning debut that got a lot of attention when it was released. It’s a raw and real read – an honest novel about being young and gay in a small town. Shortlisted for prestigious awards, it has remained in the Better Reading Top 50 for kids’ books despite its earthy themes and high percentage of adult readers. It was always going to be interesting to see what Sheppard would write next.

The Brink succeeds in establishing Sheppard as a young writer with huge potential in the Australian literary scene. It is an entertaining novel and a semiotician’s delight in the TikTok age. The plot is simple: a group of school leavers share a ride to schoolies celebrations in Jurien Bay. Turned away from the town by the police, the group go off grid in the manner of many a teenage horror story. So far, so creepy. They encounter another group from their school and some genuinely scary locals. Both groups are then invited by the leader of the local shantytown to stay on an island a short distance away.

As in Invisible Boys, The Brink has several narrators, all, for various reasons, outsiders. Sheppard is a master of dialogue and the language is real as the combined group begins to disintegrate on the island. Then a body turns up.

‘It’s him,’ ‘Brayden says. ‘His body … on the beach up there … he’s dead.’

Jared swears.

Aisha gasps, covers her mouth.

Fezza’s stubby hits the sand with a dull thud.

We all get up.

We sprint to the rocks.

We all want to see the corpse – until we actually do.

As the distrust and tension among the visitors ramp up, the locals become more threatening.

The characterisations are strong, and positively Shakespearean themes underpin the action as the group dynamics break down and explode into a battle royal.

There have been some recent mysteries set on islands and resorts where the guests are knocked off one by one. This novel is not in that category. Think more Lord of the Flies or the classic Japanese mystery, The Honjin Murders.

Leonardo is a hypochondriac, and was once best friends with Jared, the ‘king’ of Year 12, who now ignores him. Mason is Jared’s best friend and secretly lusts after him. Kaiya is the best friend of Valentina, Jared’s ‘consort’. These three – Leonardo, Mason and Kaiya – are the novel’s narrators. They observe Jared working hard to maintain his leadership of the group, the loyal Mason by his side, but ever conscious of the threat posed by Ryan. When the group veers off into the dunes, it is Ryan, with his links to the locals, who mysteriously turns up to rescue them and leads them to the shantytown known as The Brink:

The morning drags on, long and hot. Nine o’clock, ten o’clock. No locals. No news, No cops.

We try and fail to get a phone signal. We look north to the cape at the top of Brink Island, scanning the water for boats. Small groups, approved by Ryan, go eastwards to the strait, to search for any sign of cars approaching the mainland settlement.

Nothing changes. Nobody’s coming.

It’s like Max took Baz’s body and vanished.

We eat the last of the Cheezels and the Doritios and lick salty orange dust off our fingertips. We pass around bottles of milky SPF 30+. I wonder if I’m passing sunscreen to a killer. I wonder what everyone else is thinking, if anyone knows what really happened to Baz, if anyone is guilty of a crime.

If one of them did kill Baz, it’s no surprise they’re pretending it was an accident.

These young people are 18 and have finished secondary school. This is a heady mix and this is an earthy novel about sex and drugs and rock and roll. Like Invisible Boys it is frank, fresh and unapologetic and this is Sheppard’s greatest gift as a writer.

‘Well, that’s my problem, Mason. Nobody taught me a damn thing.’ I swallow a lump in my throat that’s as angry as an ulcer. ‘And now it’s so late that it’s just embarrassing for everyone.’

Mason’s dumb, bronzed face clouds over and I can see he’s trying to process something much too big for his brain to handle. He claps his hand on my shoulder. I wince, but it’s not violent.

‘That sucks. Sorry, bro.’

He leaves the room.

Sheppard’s frankness may be brutal at times but it is always on point and at times very funny.

There is so much to admire about this novel – the plotting and structure are impeccable, the tropes run thick and fast. All this is underpinned by beautifully drawn characters. Mason, Leonardo and Kaiya are all well defined individuals struggling with the complexities of adulthood and leaving the security of the networks that have supported them through school.

This is a strong follow-up to an astonishing debut and I feel that Sheppard has so much more to offer readers. I look forward to his next novel.

Holden Sheppard The Brink Text Publishing 2022 PB 352pp $24.99

Michael Jongen is a librarian who tweets as @michael_jongen

You can buy The Brink from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

Or check if this book is available from Newtown Library.

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