The Danger Game

Oh, Philip Larkin. If you hadn’t said it, how would we all really know it?

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.

But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.

Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.

danger gameKalinda Ashton’s debut novel, The Danger Game, is an exploration of the way poverty and trauma affect one generation after another. Some of it is carefully observed, and some of it is clumsy, but all of it but the last few words is cautionary: get out, there is nothing but harm here.

The novel, set in modern-day Melbourne, tells the story of Alice and Louise, adult sisters whose every moment is defined by a childhood tragedy. Fourteen years ago, their brother Jeremy, Louise’s twin, died in a house fire, and their mother disappeared immediately afterward. They’ve never known the details: why was Jeremy in the house? How did the fire start? Where did their mother go, and why did she abandon them? Now, Louise, who invented the danger game as a child, is still playing it, lost in addiction and sexual risks and hitchhiking, while Alice, always sober and protective, is teaching at a school for low-income children and immigrants (and comes home to drink and smoke and go to bed with a married man.)

There is a lot to like about this novel. The hopeless scenes in which Alice and her married lover churn over their dying relationship are painfully true to life. The narrative arc in which scheming bureaucrats try to do a neat end-run and close Alice’s school without anyone’s noticing (because who will care about low-income children and their parents?) is equally well done: queasy negotiations, shifting sands under the feet, betrayals, small triumphs. The sense of what poverty takes from people is good: the exhaustion of it, the mental drain, the incomprehension on the part of people who have enough, or more than enough. The way all that gets passed on to the kids — that seems to be what Ashton shows us most of all.

There are also things that could be better. Louise is an addict and a pathological liar, always drinking and taking whatever drugs she can find. It’s my experience that people like that are not usually capable of astute psychological insights about anyone around them — too self-absorbed and too sick — yet Louise is always seeing through people’s facades to their true selves. Hmmm. Also, one of Ashton’s themes, which could have been very interesting, is that the more her characters obsess about the past, the worse off they are. The only way they can escape is to engage with the present. This theme, however, is not exactly delicately handled: more like baseball-batted. I mean, Alice is a history teacher but her students don’t like learning history hey geddit????? Yeah. I get it. The last few paragraphs of butterfly happiness felt unearned, too, with all the trauma and lack of personal growth that came before it.

For the most part, however, this wasn’t a bad debut novel, and the grit seemed real enough. I’d be interested in seeing what Kalinda Ashton does next.

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2 Responses to The Danger Game

  1. That Philip Larkin poem is one of my all-time favourites.

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