Book review: The Better Son by Katherine Johnson

Thursday, October 6, 2016 Permalink

Queenslander Katherine Johnson combined her two loves, writing and biology, to become a science journalist. And although she’s moved into fiction, she’s not left her love of marine biology and nature behind as her latest novel, The Better Son, evokes strong imagery of the beautiful but harsh landscape of hidden caves and unforgiving terrain.

Book review: The Better Son by Katherine JohnsonThe Better Son
by Katherine Johnson
Published by Ventura Distribution
on October 1st 2016
Source: Ventura Press
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781925183399
Pages: 277

1952. Tasmania. The beautiful green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, the younger and more vulnerable Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him his whole life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to have a second chance. To go back and set things right. To be the father you never had.

Johnson firstly introduces us to an adult Kip. He’s about to turn 60 and has a younger wife and young son. After living overseas most of his adult life, with minimal visits home, he’s back in Tasmania… searching for some kind of redemption.

Almost immediately we’re taken back to Kip’s childhood on the family farm. It’s the 1950s and Kip’s father Harold took over the farm when his cousin was killed during the war. Harold was the sole survivor of his small squad – it’s something he doesn’t talk about and Kip’s mother Jess says Harold returned a different man. One prone to violence and mood swings.

Harold very obviously favours Kip’s older brother Tommy who – in his father’s eyes – can do no wrong. There’s an obvious undercurrent here and it’s relatively easy to predict why Harold’s so indifferent to Kip.

Fortunately Kip’s mother is a kind and patient woman – passionate about reading and learning – and Kip’s inherited her consideration and sensitivity. And then there’s Squid, only 18 when he arrives a Mole Creek, a farmhand who lost his own father and feels protective towards Kip in particular.

Kip and Tommy’s parents warn them against the town’s ‘dark subterranean underbelly’. And it’s a warning they take literally as Mole Creek is built on limestone…

..the sinkholes that pock-marked paddocks–apparently solid ground–could give way at a moment’s notice. Not even that. p. 33

But of course all of the children of Mole Creek dream of discovering their very own Aladdin’s cave; one which won’t be blocked off by authorities and rendered out of bounds.

Johnson does a wonderful job of placing readers in the cavernous terrain, complete with stalagmites and a sense of danger which drives the boys even more.

There’s a sense of foreboding as we wait for the tragedy. We’ve been warned about it by the adult Kip (and backcover blurb of course), and we’re there as young Kip’s torn between his fear of his father and love for his brother.

We spend quite a bit of time with the nine-year old Kip and then Johnson fast-forwards a little. We learn of adult Kip’s passion for biocontrol, environmental protection and alternatives to pesticides. He receives acclaim – renown and prizes – yet still his father remains immune to his youngest son’s achievements.

Eventually we return to the now, and we learn Kip’s marriage is struggling under the weight of past secrets. He’s depressed and distracted. And he decides it’s time to seek redemption.

I liked that Johnson doesn’t shy away from the thorny subjects of regret, forgiveness and redemption. She doesn’t throw Kip a bone allowing him to be blameless. Fifty-nine year old Kip’s discoveries don’t let him off the hook and I appreciated Johnson not taking the easy way out.

Johnson’s background in biology pervades this novel and those interested in fauna and flora and stuff will be in awe. I’m not a particularly visual person but her descriptions of the landscape, and its beauty and dangers is exceedingly realistic and places us firmly in its midst.

But the book’s about families and relationships. It’s about secrets and lies; when they get out of control and our ability to rein them in. And it’s about the impact they have on the rest of our lives.

As I read the book I wrote a comment about parents screwing up their kids’ heads for years to come. Kip’s desperation to please his father was painful to observe.

Interestingly though I liked young Kip, I didn’t particularly engage with adult Kip. Whether our time together was too short or because I only met him when he was desperate and damaged, I’m not sure. It’s probably the only real weakness in the novel for me… that lack of connection and my disinterest in his fate.

But overall this novel is quintessentially Australian, featuring a complex family drama fraught with secrets and lies and told within a evocative and dangerous landscape.

The Better Son by Katherine Johnson was published in Australia by Ventura Press and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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