I had never heard of Sonya Hartnett until A Devoted Reader blogged about Hartnett’s novel Of a boy (aka What the Birds See) back in March. What she said sounded so good that I put Hartnett on my TBR list immediately, and when I went, list in hand, to the library, Surrender was the first novel of hers that caught my eye.
This book was shelved in my library with young-adult fiction, but I believe it defies categorization of that kind. It has the feeling about it that the best books have, of not being written with any particular readership in mind. It would resonate with teenagers — the emotions are spot-on — but in other ways, it’s a profoundly adult novel, veering into territory of madness, grief, loss, psychological scarring, fear, and fragility.
As the book opens, Gabriel is dying, only twenty years old. He coughs up blood and lies racked with pain, cared for only by his aunt Sarah. In a series of flashbacks, we see his childhood: his cold, unpredictable, abusive parents, his humiliations at school, his constant fear. Into this terrible and terrifying life comes the wild boy, Finnigan. Finnigan sleeps rough, takes what he wants, cares for no one. After Gabriel forms a tentative friendship with this feral child, they make a pact: Gabriel will always be good, do only good things. Finnigan will be bad, always take the dark road, the evil path. They are linked by the beloved dog they share, named Surrender.
As the years go by, Gabriel’s town is visited by violence: sheep-killing, pet-killing, and worst of all, a series of fires that half-destroy the town. The townspeople are mystified, but Gabriel knows how dangerous Finnigan can be. He begins to realize that he will never be able to live a normal life if he cannot break his pact with his blood-brother, but he knows what kind of sacrifice it will require to break it.
I was amazed at how good this book was. It’s terribly dark and sad, so if you’re looking for something uplifting, this is not your bag. But Hartnett carves the characters of Gabriel and Finnigan, angel and wild man, with incredible finesse. Even the dog, Surrender, is a perfect character. Hartnett never goes for the easy sentimental touch or the quick sympathy. The suspense, the tenderness, and the compassion of this novel are powerful and profound, and even though I thought I understood what was happening, the ending was still a jaw-dropping surprise for me. I cannot recommend this more highly, and I plan to look for more from this author very soon.