A pathos-packed exploration of how a single event in adolescence can change the course of many lives.
Sometimes, book reviews write themselves.
At other times, they’re excruciating, because you know that whatever you write, it’s not going to do justice to the book.
Guilt falls into that category.
A group of Sydney teens is in their final year of school – heady with hormones and high on the anticipation of life beyond the HSC. But a catastrophic accident totally re-writes their futures, leaving them with feelings of guilt which, 20 years on, have only served to re-double.
Signposted effectively through changes in tense, the narrative switches between 2009 and 1989. We meet Tommy, Paul, Julia and Lani as they prepare for their mate Chris’ 18th birthday party, and again as middle age is advancing and the realisation is dawning that life is never going to meet the high expectations they had before that fateful incident 20 years ago.
This is the third work of fiction from Matt Nable, who is also a well-known television actor.
His thespian background is put to extraordinary effect in this novel; he doesn’t so much write his characters as direct them. We know how they look, how they sound, their facial expressions and their physical gestures. I nearly choked on the pathos he achieves with such keenly observed detail.
‘Tommy doesn’t answer. His expression changes: the skin on his face collects into ruckled bunches; his mouth settles on a shape indicating his unwillingness to hear any more.’
There’s a quiet intensity to this book and a constant, underlying tension between the way life serves up moments of beauty and euphoria, and utter shittiness.
As I making this book sound depressing? I hope not. For while the subject matter is grim, the novel as a whole is strangely life affirming.
It took me back to that extraordinary period of life that we call ‘adolescence’, with its constant yearning to be older, smarter, prettier, more muscly etc. That period where everything seems to matter SO MUCH – who’s kissing who? Who’s drinking what? What mark will you get in the HSC? What will you do with your life? But overlaying it all is this tremendous sense of invincibility and discovery; to be a teenager is to feel you are discovering the world for the first time, to be middle-aged is to understand the falsity of that feeling.
‘”As you get older you begin to realise that life is much better when it’s simple”.
The teenage boys in Guilt are alternatively tender and brutal. The same could be said of the girls. And then there is the recklessness. Pretty much every teenager does something really, really life-threateningly stupid. Most get away with it. The kids in Guilt do not – and it changes the entire course of their lives.
‘He feels an onslaught of self pity that’s too violent to keep out. And he wishes he could hug his younger self, and tell him to take notice and enjoy what is directly in front of him: the lunch order, the handball games and the sleepovers, the smell inside a pencil case, and the sound of a school bell that sends him home. And then to tell him as he got older to savour the different feels of each weekday, Monday through to Friday and then Saturday as against Sunday. The days now feel of nothing.’
In the same way that the intensity of adolescence can only be appreciated with the benefit of hindsight, it is perhaps fair to say that this book will resonate with people of a certain age.
Some readers may struggle with the volume of characters introduced at the beginning, but I can only encourage persistence – the payoff is worth the occasional moments of confusion.
In short, Nable brings a wealth of life experience and wisdom to the fore in Guilt. His perspective is real and nuanced. He made me feel what it is to be young, and relief that I am still not so.