Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

This is a mysterious story that had me scratching my head in spots and peeking out from behind my hands in horror in others.  

Anwell is a young boy growing up in a small town, Mulyan. His parents are seen as the ‘kooks’ of the town, and as a result, he doesn’t have any friends. His parents are in fact more than kooks—they are nasty, cold and negligent parents, but more about that later.

The story opens with Gabriel, at the age of 20, dying. He reflects on what led him to his current situation and through his narration we are drawn into the story of his childhood—a childhood of sadness and horror. Or simply a story of someone who suffered a dreadful mental illness for most of his life? It becomes clear that this story is open to interpretation. Gabriel and Anwell are, after all, the same person.

One day when Gabriel is about 10 years old, he is in the back yard playing on his own when he meets a boy of around about the same age—Finnigan. Finnigan is a wild and unruly boy with unkempt hair and old, dirty clothes. He never mentions his home or family and he doesn’t go to school. Gabriel is in awe of Finnigan and desperately wants to be his friend. They make a pact (or a ‘packet’, as the delinquent and unschooled Finnigan calls it) that Finnigan will carry out all the bad deeds that need to be done so that Gabriel can remain angelic. In this way they become the perfect and complete blood brother, the yin and the yang.

Mulyan is then terrorised for years by an elusive arsonist. It is apparently Finnigan and the only person who knows this is Gabriel. Gabriel’s father sets out to capture him out of a desire to humiliate the local policeman more than a desire to keep the town safe. Gabriel’s father is a cold bully and his mother is a basket case, but not in a nice way.

Gabriel, or Anwell (he is Gabriel only to Finnigan and himself) grew up with a severely mentally handicapped older brother. When Anwell was seven years old, his brother died under his watch. This, I believe, was the catalyst for Anwell’s decline into mental illness. His family environment was the perfect incubator for going crazy, but his brother’s death, which he blames himself for, pushed him headlong into madness. In this sense I read Gabriel as an unreliable narrator. His version of the facts is a creation of crazed mind. This is a story of a person with a horrible imaginary friend—an alter ago—who can be blamed for all the bad things that occur (or the bad things that Anwell does, or imagines). But this doesn’t really explain Anwell’s own horrific actions towards the end of the story. Instead, only questions are raised: How much of it actually happened and how much of it was imagined? Was there even a series of arson attacks on the town or was this a fantasy of Anwell’s? 

So where does Surrender come into all of this? Surrender is Anwell’s dog. The dog is like Finnigan—he is untamed and free, everything that Anwell wants to be but is not.  After Surrender is caught killing some kids (baby goats), he is condemned to death by Anwell’s father who commands Anwell pull the trigger himself. This is a very harrowing sequence in the novel and also the point at which a few things come together. First of all, we see Anwell’s father for the comprehensively cruel and heartless person that he is. Importantly, this is also the point where Anwell and Finnigan become one. Anwell decides to ‘surrender’ Surrender to Finnigan so that the dog escapes being killed. Unsurprisingly, instead of staying in the forest with Finnigan, Surrender follows Anwell home. Anwell tells himself that it’s only Surrender’s body that is being shot and that his soul is with Finnigan. The impossibility of separating good from evil is embodied in the shooting of Surrender and with this Anwell’s struggle to compartmentalise his good and bad sides finally wear him down. This failure triggers the desperate and tragic final act—after years of repressed guilt and shame over his brother’s death, he takes out his loss in the most gruesome manner, perhaps also as a way of revenging his brother against neglectful and callous parents.

I’m still digesting this book. I can’t explain massive chunks of it. Like Evangeline? Not sure where she fits into the story… she was a point of contention between Gabriel and Finnigan, but I’m not sure of the significance of her other than being another reason for Gabriel’s general humiliation in life.

I recommend this novel because it is beautifully written and will mess with your head a little (a good thing now and then, don’t you think...?) It was quite scary in some spots because I knew that something terrible was going to happen but I couldn’t predict when or what. With Finnigan looming in the background the spectre of evil was omnipresent. This made for quite a dark and somewhat terrifying story.

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