Like several other books I’ve read recently Denizen by James McKenzie Watson was an award-winner before it was even published, winning the 2021 Penguin Literary Prize
I only belatedly requested a review copy after seeing others rave about it following its July 2022 release. And it’s certainly a brilliantly-written book. A confronting and challenging read in some ways and the second I’ve read in a row that tackles mental illness and self-harm.Denizen
by James McKenzie Watson
Published by Penguin Random House Australia
Source: Penguin Random House Australia
Genres: Literary Fiction, Thriller / Suspense
On a remote property in western NSW, nine-year-old Parker fears that something is wrong with his brain. His desperate attempts to control this internal chaos spark a series of events that gallop from his control in deadly and devastating ways.
Years later, Parker, now a father himself, returns to the bushland he grew up in for a camping trip with old friends. When this reunion descends into chaos amid revelations of unresolved fear, guilt and violence, Parker must finally address the consequences of his childhood actions.
This is cleverly constructed with Parker in the present having recently become a father. He’s only 24 and it’s the birth of Christian that has childhood memories and images flooding back. Most of which are bad. Quite dire in fact.
We very quickly learn that young Parker’s relationship with his mother was fraught. In the past, the pair fight incessantly and often quite violently, both issuing threats and… well, verbally wishing the other would die. More than once they comment on harming each other. Parker believes his brain is broken but tries to develop strategies to avoid causing trouble.
The goal remained to prevent myself from causing further damage, but my mother seemed to want me to lose control. So perhaps, paradoxically, I had to mimic her approach: briefly turn my behaviour up to eleven and show just how fucking miserable I could make her life. A controlled loss of control. Recklessness, but with a plan and a reason. Eventually, she’d realise the cost of provoking me was too great, and when that happened (presuming I’d survived), she’d leave me alone. I’d be free to just be good. p 65
I became a little confused a few times in this book because we’re in Parker’s head and – for the most part – only privy to the way he’s experiencing others and the world. They challenge his thoughts and actions at times and we’re left to decide whether he’s being manipulated or if they’re in the right. I’m a bit of a control freak so struggled with this – particularly in the third quarter of the book – as I wasn’t sure what was real or not. Watson uses partial sentences, leaving off words or repeating phrases and I worried it was some code and I was supposed to link the half-paragraphs together in a way that made more sense.
In some ways the often-frenetic phrases and manic meandering thoughts are really really clever, but I think it’s also risky. I wasn’t sure – for a while – that Watson was pulling it it off.
Until it was obvious he was. And did. It only occurred to me latter (on a re-read of parts to write this review) he was possibly mimicking Parker’s thought patterns. The half-sentences (we’d only catch the middle of sentences, with words and phrases missing from the beginning or end) reflect his half thoughts. His inability to focus.
Because we’re in Parker’s head – in the past and in the present as he revisits his childhood home – we almost become inured to his patterns of thinking. It’s almost as if we understand his inability to control his behaviour. I found [the experience] insightful and appreciated that it’s quite some time before labels are introduced.
That time, I heard it without the filter. The words bypassed the internal lens that distorted so much of my world and reached my brain with perfect clarity. p 297
After I finished this book I went to mark it off in Goodreads and wrote something like, ‘Wow, just wow.’ Any ambivalence I’d had earlier had been dispelled. Well and truly. I was blown-away. Or ‘shook’ as the youngsters say.
Watson paces the conclusion and last few pages in a way that’s frantic and bewildering, offering readers a creepy voyeuristic sense of shock or horror while trying to make sense of what’s happening.
This is a stunning read by Watson. I realise some people may not be happy with the way the book pans out but he manages to expose readers to psychopathology in a way that’s sympathetic but also very very shocking.
Denizen by James McKenzie Watson was published in Australia by Penguin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.