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In Mark Brandi’s gut punch of a novel, Southern Aurora, the titular train occasionally flashes through town, spellbinding the local kids with its promise of elsewhere. They live in the fictional small town of Mittigunda, which is smack bang in the middle of nowhere. It’s a dot on the map that has a train station only because it marks the halfway point between Sydney and Melbourne.
Mark Brandi sketches out a world of intergenerational trauma, insecure work, alcoholism and the cycle of violence.Credit: Justin McManus
Jimmy, the young protagonist has only a vague understanding of the broader world beyond the town’s confines. He had a beloved dog, Tippy, until someone shot his pet. Now, his life revolves around his Mum, her deadbeat boyfriend, Charlie, his younger brother, Sam, and his best mate, Danny. The pending release from jail of his older brother, Mick, also looms large in his troubled mind.
Everyone is in social housing on “The Avenue”, where Jimmy lives. Boredom and poverty are rife. But despite his tough upbringing, there’s an innocence about Jimmy, a pure and tragic belief he can make things right for his family. He looks out for his brother, considered a “special kid”, who rarely speaks and is never seen without his Rubik’s Cube. He frets about his mother’s reliance on cask wine, which she calls “The Kaiser”. He feels sick about Charlie hurting her again. He wonders how Mick will reintegrate into their family unit.
When Jimmy hears of a billycart race at school, he thinks it’s the key to changing his fortunes. He teams up with Danny and Chadwick, an outsider at school who wows Jimmy with his largesse when he buys him a Golden Gaytime. Don, a kindly older local who drives the school bus, helps Jimmy to restore his beaten-up cart, not realising that Jimmy has access to Chadwick’s newer, more streamlined cart. As the boys train together and dream of victory, the buildup to the race becomes engrossing despite its humble scale.
Those who enjoyed Brandi’s previous works such as the menacing slow burn of The Others and the vividly wrought small-town inertia of Wimmera will likely again be absorbed by the quietly riveting, emotionally potent Southern Aurora. While staying true to his minimalist modus operandi, it finds new wrinkles in Brandi’s brutal but tender evocation of life on the margins.
Throughout, Brandi sketches out a world of intergenerational trauma, insecure work, alcoholism and the cycle of violence, but Southern Aurora wears its social commentary lightly. It’s a remarkably effective exercise in dramatic irony, with Jimmy often only partially understanding the grimness surrounding him as he pieces together his mother’s plight through inference, rumour and overheard snatches of euphemistic conversation.
As is Brandi’s wont, the pacing is measured, relying on a slow but carefully controlled drip feed of information rather than an action-packed plot. But the stillness only adds to the realism and conveys the stagnation and dread that swirl through Jimmy’s life.
The prose is artfully blunt, conveying the sense that Jimmy doesn’t dare get too elaborate in his dreams of a better life. His internal response to his mother’s plan to relocate to Ferndale is typically guarded: “A fresh start. A job in the deli. It all sounds pretty great.” The details are perfectly chosen – the men defining themselves through their cars and how they fuss over their vehicles, the kids drooling over a Gray-Nicolls cricket bat, and Jimmy escaping his woes with a Tintin book.
Eventually, the different storylines resolve, and a well-judged coda provides a satisfying conclusion without the author giving into the temptation of pretending deep-set wounds will quickly heal or that large-scale social problems can be easily resolved.
The lasting impression is the unshakable hopefulness in Jimmy, the spirit that motivates him to wave at the passing Southern Aurora even though nobody returns his greeting. “One day it’ll be us on that train, on our way to Sydney,” he tells himself. “We’ll wave at all the people in the towns along the way.”
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