We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson

Reviewed by Rod McLary

The author of this new novel – Campbell Mattinson – has said that it is ‘the only story I ever really wanted to write’ and sets out in the Acknowledgements [341] the real-life story which inspired him.  While not autobiographical in intent, the content of We Were Not Men does suggest that some events in the novel may have been drawn from the author’s own experiences.  This of course is perfectly fine as no less a celebrated author than J M Coetzee has said: ‘all writing is autobiography: everything that you write, including criticism and fiction, writes you as you write it.’

This may mean no more than that ‘on some level, there exists within every work of fiction an element of reality – an ultimate truth perceived perhaps only in glimpses’.  A reader of this novel will, by its end, attest to this view as there are many passages which have the authenticity of lived experience.

On the face of it, the story is a simple one.  Jon and Eden are twins and nine-years-old.  On the way home with their parents after visiting their step-grandmother Bobbie, they are involved in a tragic road accident.  Both their parents are killed and the boys are seriously injured – particularly Eden.

Grieving for their parents, they are taken in by Bobbie who is herself grieving for Jack – or Grandpa Jack as the boys called him.

At the heart of this book is the love between Jon and Eden which in the manner of young boys is taken for granted – it simply exists there between them.  The story takes place over a period of eight years as the boys grow from grief-stricken nine-year-olds to young men of seventeen.  What continues as the constant in their lives is their love for each other even though it may not be directly expressed by either.  Alongside the boys is Bobbie who has committed herself to caring for them but whose heart is trapped by the absence of Jack – the boys’ grandfather.

The boys begin swimming in the local creek but – perhaps in a metaphorical desire to return to the past – they swim upstream and against the current.  Swimming becomes a motif through the book and sits alongside love as the dominant themes explored by the author.

When he is in year six, Jon falls in love with Carmelina – the daughter of a local shopkeeper and whose family seems to exhibit indicators of domestic violence.  The relationship progresses quickly and there is some rather precocious sexual activity; but ultimately, the relationship fails as Jon’s innate need for love and reassurance is too much for Carmelina.   A few years later, the relationship is rekindled but again fails.  Eden is aware of the relationship but plays no part in it although the astute reader will anticipate what is to come.  Carmelina and Eden take up with each other – which Jon discovers purely by chance.  This betrayal by Eden temporarily fractures the boys’ relationship and there is almost no contact between them for twelve months.

There is eventually a resolution of this disconnect between the boys illustrating – perhaps – the triumph of brotherly love over erotic love.

We Were Not Men is not a novel which relies on dialogue to advance the narrative.  Much of what is actually spoken is fragmented as if the characters are unable or unwilling to fully articulate their thoughts or feelings.  Bobbie in particular tends to speak in epigraphs which do not always relate to what is occurring around her as in ‘I’m calling it punishment by promotion’ [128].  The other characters seem prepared to accommodate her in this regard and it is not until near the conclusion of the novel that Jon speaks up and says; ‘Can you just, you know, shut up’ [300].

The most successful aspect of the novel are those passages where the author is describing actions rather than thoughts or emotions as in the following: My lead in the race was incredible to me and yet I had designed it.  I flipped over to start the second lap and sought out the backwash and surfed it. … I raced so smart, I felt brutal. [198]

We Were Not Men is a book worth the reading even if, at the end of it, there is that lingering question ‘a good book but what is the author telling us?’  Perhaps the answer lies in the author’s statement that it is a book ‘in which everything means something to me’ [341].  And for this reason alone, it will also begin to mean something to the reader.

The author started a journalism cadetship in 1987 and since then has worked as a writer, editor, photographer and wine critic.  He won the Best Australian Sports Writing Award in 1996 for a story that is the basis for this novel.  His 2006 biography of winemaker Maurice O’Shea – The Wine Hunter ­– has won numerous awards.

We Were Not Men

[2021]

by Campbell Mattinson

Harper Collins

ISBN 978 14607 5952 3

$32.99; 343pp

 

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