In the opening scene of Claire Zorn’s award-winning YA contemporary novel, the main character Sam is in a hospital feeding coins into a payphone that’s eating them just as fast. He’s trying to contact his aunty Lorraine who he hasn’t seen in years, but who he hopes will let him come and stay. His mum has died unexpectedly and he’s on his own.
Something of the feeling of that scene stayed with me throughout the book. Sam is in a precarious position – he’s alone in the world, he can’t support himself, his lines of communication and connection to those around him feel tenuous, fragile. He’s trying to hold it together, burying a roaring grief inside himself because he doesn’t know what else to do with it.
This wasn’t a book I read quickly. I took a little while for my ear to acclimatise to the style of the dialogue, which is heavily vernacular, and the intensity of the language. And it’s not a light book – the storytelling is carefully paced and subtle; the grief and the secrets and the resentments and the mistakes are all given their time to unfold.
I really admire what Zorn has tried, and I think succeeded in doing with this book: she shows the point of view of a character who is smart and insightful but who is not articulate. I also liked that this book was about a boy/young man because most of the YA I read has female leads.
One would think the deep is sunk knee-deep in the 90s. Music is really important to the protagonist, and is one of the ways he connects with people he meets and tries to make sense of his loss of his Mum and everything he’s feeling. This isn’t just a passing reference, but is explored in detail and is important to the story. Sam’s mixtape includes REM, the Pixies, Radiohead, Beastie Boys. Jeff Buckley’s Grace is the song that is most impactful, and the chronology is timed so that Jeff Buckley’s death by drowning occurs during the course of the story.
I couldn’t help comparing this to Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda, which is similarly set (in part) in the 90s, and in which Kurt Cobain’s death is a significant plot point. I don’t know if this is fair or not but it’s the comparison that kept coming to me, and I felt that Zorn’s story felt more placed in that time period, where Tsiolka’s felt like it really belonged there, perhaps because his included present tense narrative set in the current time as well.
Another element of the story that I similarly connected to while it didn’t quite sit right was the character of Ruby. She’s a young Aboriginal woman who’s living with an adopted family and who’s just starting to connect with her identity and imagine her future. She’s Minty (Sam’s cousin)’s close friend/ex-girlfriend and she’s often there on the periphery. I felt like she existed in part to show that Minty had the capacity to be a good guy, even if he sometimes didn’t choose to exercise it. I felt like hers was a story that Zorn was invested in and wanted to tell, which is great. But I also felt a little like she wasn’t central enough – you could remove her character without fundamentally changing the story. And I guess that’s okay! There’s no law saying an author can only include those characters fundamental to story structure in the book. But it did leave me feeling unsure about her place in things. Interestingly, my Mum picked up this book and read it while she was staying with me and had the same response (though she thought Ruby was included to indicate the book as clearly Australian for an overseas market).
The other thing that didn’t quite work for me was the biblical reference that is the source of the book’s title. It just didn’t sit right – it felt like it was included because the author liked it rather than because it was really coherent with the characters and the context.
This is one of those books that has lodged itself in my mind. It wasn’t the easiest read, but the characters felt strongly real and have something like their own life inside me now. I was engaged and moved by the story. I saw part of the twist/reveal coming but not all of it. And I love that, while not shying away from the hard stuff of life, the book finished on a tone of real hope and connection.