TEXT review


A song for the heart

review by Elizabeth Claire Alberts

 

 

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Kristin Henry
All the way home
UWA Publishing, Crawley 2013
ISBN 9781742582825
Pb 196pp AUD24.95

 

Kristin Henry’s adult verse novel, All the way home, begins with a poem about orchids. The main character, Jesse, remembers how his orchids were once a ‘sickly pot-bound clump / whose roots had circled the heart / and squeezed’ (1). To save the plant’s life, he had to use a knife to disentangle the roots. ‘Most of Jesse’s [memories] are coiled and knotted / from years of looking somewhere else,’ Henry writes. ‘But now he’s taking his courage / and a blade to the tangles’ (1). Each poem that follows in All the way home is a tendril of memory that links the events of Jesse’s life.

Henry segments Jesse’s story into short, song-like poems that bloom into an engaging narrative. The verse novel is divided into twelve main narrative sections, each exploring a different year in Jesse’s life in chronological order. The first section starts in the United States: It is 1956, and Jesse is eight years old, travelling with his father in a ‘shiny green Packard’ (8). The duo constantly travels, stopping in cities and small towns where his father sells ‘everything from vacuum cleaners to cologne’ (8). Jesse’s mother has died, and Jesse stares at a photograph to remember his mother’s red hair, and thinks about what she once said about ‘our duty / to those who loved us’ (6). As Jesse grows up in his father’s care, he learns ‘to read / a map and a road / to take the wheel / when his dad was tanked, / to let a waitress ruffle his hair / for another cup of coffee’ (10). A few short poems into the verse novel, when Jesse is just sixteen, the father passes away, leaving Jesse ‘the last Packard, / his life insurance, / the habit of moving on’ (12).

With his Gibson guitar as his sole companion, Jesse drives down the historic Route 66 for a few years, but after a while, the United States can’t contain him, and Jesse’s thoughts drift towards Australia. He remembers what his father said about Australia: ‘If you went any further / you’d be on the way back’ (16). On his nineteenth birthday, Jesse buys a passage to Sydney on a freighter ‘with a list so bad, / everyone on board walked / clutching the sky for balance’ (16).

As an American transplant herself, Henry realistically describes Jesse’s initial observations of Australia, which draw a sharp comparison to the concrete highways, roadside diners, and truck stops that Jesse was used to frequenting in the United States.

            He noticed how the people here
            always talked about the sea,
            as though having the edge
            of the earth in sight
            was their birthright.
            They needed to plough their bodies
            underneath its churning surface. (21)

While Jesse doesn’t feel the same pull to the land and ocean, he finds himself gravitating towards a red-haired, fiddle-playing Irish girl named Flannery, who he meets at the local pub. The reader can understand Jesse’s intense attraction to Flannery when she is described as ‘another foreign land’ that would require Jesse to ‘brush up on the customs’ and ‘learn her language’ (31). At the end of a narrative section, Jesse speaks to the ghost of his father, revealing that Flannery is pregnant.

            … I don’t want my kid to grow like I did
            and what if I can never settle down –
            if there’s too much of my old man in me
            to let me give up living on the run? (38)

In the large gaps of white page space that follow this poem, the reader might wonder what Jesse will do – if he’ll settle down, or hit the road again.

In 1968, everything changes for Jesse. His red haired daughter, Maille, is born, and she becomes the ‘clasp’ that joins him to Flannery (45). More significantly, Jesse meets Leon, this man he spots walking barefoot on the beach ‘with people leaving the road / in ones and twos, climbing over rocks, / to walk beside him’ (42). Jesse joins the throng of people walking with him, ‘striding backwards in the sand / so he wouldn’t lose the man’s face.’ Jesse suddenly feels ‘ignited,’ ‘his body tight, excited’ as he watches Leon (42). Admittedly, I wasn’t entirely convinced that Jesse would be so immediately drawn to this stranger, and I even wondered if the author was hinting towards a homosexual attraction. While my conjecture was wrong, the question of why Leon captivated Jesse certainly kept me flipping the pages.

The reader is provided with the barest details about Leon, but we know that he abruptly left ‘a book-lined office’ in a ‘grey gothic building’ in Adelaide, and we get the sense that he was running away from a painful past (41). Leon remains a mysterious character, but a charismatic one, and he easily convinces Jesse and Flannery to move to his five hundred acre property to start up a commune called ‘Heartsong’. Leon’s vision for the commune is quixotic, but for many years, Jesse, Flannery and Maille (as well as many other families) live the utopian dream that Leon envisions.

           They cleared and planted,
            raised their crops and raised their chickens,
            raised each other’s roofs and children,
            raised each other’s spirits,
            they were teaching,
            they were learning,
            there was no inside or outside.
            Leon held them all together,
            rejoiced in every triumph
            and first among the victories –
            their kids had no word for ‘stranger.’ (71)

In her letters to her parents in Ireland, Flannery quells her parents’ concerns that Heartsong is a religious community, but the author often uses language that likens Leon to a Jesus figure. For instance, one poem entitled ‘Leon’s thou shalt nots’, lists things that Leon forbids in Heartsong: drugs, television, outside jobs, handouts (85).

Following many years of bliss, the community begins to disband. Leon becomes more withdrawn, and ‘small outbreaks / of disenchantment’ occur in the community, prompting many people to leave (86). Eventually, Leon hands Heartsong’s reins to Jesse, a responsibility Jesse struggles to handle, especially when Flannery pressures him to leave the community with her and Maille. For the first time in his life, Jesse feels burdened with duty, and he’s afraid that his ignorance of the outside world will shame his family. When Flannery leaves him, Jesse comes to the realisation that ‘[w]hen it came to the people he’d loved / it was always them who left’ (142).

In All the way home, Henry has skilfully developed convincing characters through rich poetic language. These are not cardboard cutouts, but multi-faceted characters who act from the songs of their hearts, and keep the reader intrigued until the very last page.

 

 

Elizabeth Claire Alberts is an American ex-pat who moved to Australia as a young adult. She is currently completing her PhD in creative writing at Macquarie University, where she also tutors and lectures in creative writing. Her creative writing thesis is on young adult verse novels.

 

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TEXT
Vol 17 No 2 October 2013
http://www.textjournal.com.au
General editor: Nigel Krauth. Editors: Kevin Brophy & Enza Gandolfo
Reviews editor: Linda Weste
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