The Incredible Here and Now by Felicity Castagna. Giramondo Publishing (Young Adult Fiction) 2013.
To find a book that starts with death and yet doesn’t simply dwell on grief is no mean feat. When the blurb of The Incredible Here and Now hinted at something terrible, I was expecting tragedy. It arrived within the first 40 pages. You could sense it was coming but somehow it still managed to be a blow.
On the first page the reader is introduced to the world of 15-year-old Michael in Western Sydney where the Coke factory, the McDonald’s car park, the Parramatta streets and the football field loom large on the landscape of his life.
His older brother Dom is the quintessential charmer, impressing people as he cruises through life with a bold smile. However Castagna obeys the golden rule that young men who seem invincible rarely actually are. When he and Michael are in a car accident, Michael’s entire world turns upside down, setting the wheels into motion for the most difficult year of his young life.
Michael manages to be an “every-boy”, from a very specific background and place but yet thoroughly relatable. Although this is a novel about grief it is even more so a novel about adolescence and growing up. Castagna mixes Michael’s grief and adolescent angst with a youthful sense of adventure in a way that prevents the novel from being dragged down. Michael as narrator weaves together anecdotes from his life into a powerful narrative.
Through Michael’s eyes, Castagna imbues the world with magic in small things. Charcoal chicken, a white Pontiac Trans Am and even Dom’s porn magazines, buried in the park across from their apartment block, loom large in the story. Even for the reader who has not been to Sydney’s western suburbs, the book evokes such a strong sense of place that you’re instantly transported to Michael’s world. It’s a world Michael sees as exciting yet familiar.
“That’s what West is: shiny cars and loud things, people coming, people going-movement. Those who don’t know any better, they come in to the neighbourhood and lock their windows and drive on through, never stopping before they get somewhere else.”
Cars play a big part in the book and shown as thrilling but dangerous, acting as a metaphor for aspects of the western life. Despite the accident however, cars are never demonised. The antics of the boys in cars are simply part of the framework of their lives.
The white Pontiac Trans Am Dom always admired becomes a symbol of hope throughout the novel, continually popping up to add shimmer and sparkle to the suburban nights.
It would be all too easy to elevate Dom to a godlike status, but Michael’s perceptions of his brother make him a realistic young man. This makes Michael’s loss feel much more real to the reader and prevents the novel from sliding into the realm of melodrama.
Of course there is a girl in the story, but the love story is a small, believable one suited to an adolescent couple. Michael meets Mo “short for Monique” at the pool and their romance is one filled with the sweet minutiae of young love. He spends time with her at her parents’ fruit shop and loves her “amazing smile” but finds that she talks so much and “I lose the ability to follow along”. Michael listens to her but gets distracted by her lip gloss and looks forward to summer when she’ll wear shorter skirts. It’s a young romance that doesn’t try to be a modern-day Romeo and Juliet.
Even the secondary characters’ personalities come to life through Michael’s laidback story-telling style. A student fighting against rumours about his sexuality, elderly Esther and her wayward son, Michael’s best friend Shadi and a host of other characters crop up alongside Michael’s own family unit. It is testament to Castagna’s writing that most of these characters manage to be equally compelling.
This book is all about the journey rather than the destination. It isn’t always big on action but every chapter finds new ways to capture the senses. By the end of the book Michael and his friends and family are intensely familiar to the reader. Frequently the story’s conflicts resolve themselves quietly without fanfare, adding to the intensely real world charm of the book. In focusing on the small things, Castagna allows much bigger things – like grief, love and growing up – to shine in a way that is all too rare in many young adult novels.
– Victoria Nugent
Victoria Nugent is a journalist and an avid reader. Her to read pile is continually growing and she has given up hope on finding a bookshelf that will fit her collection.
The Incredible Here and Now is available from http://www.giramondopublishing.com/fiction/the-incredible-here-and-now/
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