Reviewed by Rod McLary
In the 1990s, a new genre in literature emerged in Australia – grunge literature. Perhaps the best exemplars are Andrew McGahan’s novels Praise and 1988 published in 1992 and 1995 respectively. The characteristics of grunge literature are that its novels are usually fictional or semi-autobiographical and concerned with dissatisfied and disenfranchised young people living ‘gritty, dirty, real existences’ in pursuit of casual sex, drug use and alcohol.
The existence of grunge literature has been the subject of some debate in Australia with no less than Christos Tsiolkas calling the term ‘a media creation’. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of claiming the existence of grunge literature, there is certainly a body of work which describes the lives of characters who are disenfranchised and lack drive and determination. In 2008, Jean-Francois Vernay said that the ‘depressed and frightened young Australian men’ in grunge literature express ‘their alienation through excessive alcohol consumption, acts of brutality, sexual conquests and active contempt for authority’.
This is a good enough description of Spinifex & Sunflowers which chronicles three months in the life of Nick Harris – twenty-something years old – who is running away from a violent family background and a soul-crushing debt created by a holiday in Central America. He applies to become a ‘client service officer’ in an ‘immigration detention centre’ in north-west Western Australia. As he points out more than once, he will really be a prison guard in a refugee prison. Beginning as he means to continue, on his first day of the training program Nick arrives on his motor bike ‘as drunk as a boiled owl’.
Nick’s father has recently died from loss of blood after an accident with a chain saw. Clem – as Nick calls him as he refuses to call him ‘Dad’ – was a violent and unpredictable man from an equally violent and unpredictable family. Although the relationship between Nick and Clem was toxic, Nick is unable to avoid recounting the many incidents of unpredictability and violence which characterised his childhood. Nick – in spite of his father’s behaviour – was as a child desperate to gain his approval. There is a telling incident when Nick was ten years old. He badly gashed his foot on a piece of glass and was taken by Clem to the doctor. The doctor told him that the wound needed stitches and he could have an anaesthetic if he wished.
I wanted that anaesthetic, because it hurt about as bad as I could remember anything hurting … But I knew the right answer. No anaesthetic I said. … Clem said ‘good boy’ and gave me a pat on the leg. And it was worth it, just for that. 
Nick is employed as a ‘client service officer’ with the refugee centre. He describes his fellow officers one of whom – Mad Dog Roy – becomes his ‘new mate’. Nick describes Roy as ‘an unguarded sharer of his raw, bleeding and pained soul’ . Then there is Danny – Danny ‘looks like the dumbest f… here because he got a big black goatee’ . Just in case the reader is beginning to think that Nick is much the same as his colleagues, he assures us that he ‘studied medicine at the state’s best university. I didn’t finish but that had nothing to do with ability and everything to do with loathing … of the middle-class prigs with whom I studied’ . There are other reminders that he studied medicine later in the novel.
Contrary to one of the centre’s cardinal rules – do not befriend the refugees – Nick does exactly that. He finds with some surprise that the refugees are largely reasonable people who are struggling with separation from family [all the refugees are adult males], uncertainty about their status in this strange country, and mind-numbing boredom. From time to time to prevent self-harming or worse, a refugee will be placed on close watch where an officer is required to be within arm’s length of the refugee for twenty-four hours.
Nick chronicles the day-to-day activities of an officer from cordial machine watching to responding to incidents of aggression. He talks about his colleagues and his attempts at developing friendships and relationships.
Unfortunately, there is an unevenness of tone through the novel. It seems that the author is trying to write a gritty and realistic novel – a ‘grunge’ novel – but can’t avoid reminding the reader that Nick is really an intelligent and caring young man who had the misfortune to be the son of an angry and violent heavy drinker. On one page, there is this sentence: ‘The boat people are the ones fleeing war-torn hellholes, oppressive theocracies, clan or caste progroms and political persecutions’; and this sentence: ‘For a moment I think, yeah, sure, maybe the ayatollahs have a point, heavy metal does blow’ .
There is also the sub-text that refugees are not dangerous criminals who need to be locked in secure centres in the outback but are people escaping violence and persecution and are the Australian citizens of the future. But running through the novel too is the relationship between Nick and his father which may have been toxic but is one which Nick is unable to leave behind.
Spinifex & Sunflowers is a slightly confused novel – perhaps a little like its title. It is entertaining in parts but, overall, it is disappointing.
Avan Stallard was born and raised in Western Australia. He has a PhD from the University of Queensland where he taught Australian history. He has written a history book Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent. Spinifex & Sunflowers is based on the author’s own experiences at the Curtin Immigration Detention Centre where he worked for three months.
Spinifex & Sunflowers
by Avan Judd Stallard
ISBN 978 1 925 16499 2