Archive for December 5, 2015

Harmless by Julienne Van Loon

December 5, 2015 22 comments

Harmless by Julienne Van Loon (2013)

Van_Loon_HarmlessHarmless is the second Australian book I’ve read with the sole purpose of discovering Perth before our guest from this city arrives. (See here for the first book). I’m afraid I still don’t know much about Perth, so now I’ll wait for her arrival next week. That said, I’m still glad I’ve read Harmless by Julienne Van Loon.

The book opens with old Rattuwat and young Amanda walking in the bush by a scorching heat. Their car broke down and they have an appointment at the local prison where Amanda’s father, Dave, is serving a prison sentence. Amanda is only eight and she thinks she remembers the way to the prison but will she get there on time? Rattuwat is an old man, he’s Thai and has come to Australia to bury his daughter Sua. He barely speaks English and he’s following Amanda reluctantly.

How did Amanda and Rattuwat end up walking together like this? Actually, Sua and Dave were living together and she was taking care of his children while he was locked away. Now Rattuwat is in Australia, his son-in-law is in prison and there’s no one to watch Amanda.

The tone of the novella is set and it’s leaded with tension. Will they make it on time for the appointment at the prison? Will they find their way? In parallel to the day’s events, we see Dave waiting for them in prison, we follow Amanda’s thoughts and discover her short life and Rattuwat’s thoughts unveil Sua’s life in Thailand.

Different continent, different climate but the book the closest to Harmless is Beside the Sea by Véronique Olmi. Same bleakness, same unbearable hopelessness. They show characters pinned to the ground by circumstances and too weak or too isolated to stand up and climb out of their hole. The mother in Beside the Sea and Dave here are in a desperate need of a support system and there’s no one. Both novellas are difficult to read because they show children whose fate is inexorable. And the reader wonders: what are the social services doing?

Amanda is the result of a one-night-stand and her mother doesn’t want her. She literally dropped Amanda on Dave’s lap at a party and left. What a start in life for a child! Dave, who never knew about the pregnancy, took the baby home and started to raise her. Dave was a petty criminal and a drug user, he tried to be a good father but kept taking wrong turns. His years with Sua were an oasis in his life. After Sua’s death, there’s no one to take care of Amanda and he’s sick with worry for her and full of regrets for ending up in prison. Will Amanda’s mother accept to take care of her until he’s free?

Rattuwat reflects on Sua’s life and her past in Thailand comes to light. She was a victim of the sex trade and her coming to Australia with an Australian man is not very clean. Rattuwat can’t help thinking he failed her as a father and now she’s gone.

In Harmless, two men assess their parenting skills. Both have regrets because their actions will cause their daughter great harm. We often see books with crappy fathers but they never seem to notice how bad they are. Dave and Rattuwat have this in common, in addition to their love for Sua.

As a reader and as a mother, I was only preoccupied by Amanda’s future. I kept wondering about her chances to have a happy life with such a start and I kept thinking about all the real Amandas in our societies.

Thanks to Lisa for recommending this novella. Her review can be found here.


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