Submitted by David Whish-Wilson on Fri, 13/05/2011 – 13:33

Jon Bauer’s debut novel Rocks in the Belly has been widely acclaimed, and endorsed by the likes of JM Coetzee, David Malouf and MJ Hyland, and I can see why – it’s a fascinating exploration of a child character whose selfishness and bloody-mindedeness precipitates what is essentially a terrible crime (although the child’s culpability is limited. Or is it? The novel asks, and the narrator explores the question – how much can an eight year-old child understand, and be responsible for the consequences of his/her actions?) The story is narrated by a character that is never named, in a city that is never named (you might say that the real setting is childhood.) The narrator is an eight year old child made jealous by the arrival in his family of an older foster child, Robert, who is charismatic in a way that the narrator is not. Robert comes from more difficult circumstances but he is not the difficult, selfish and ungenerous child that the narrator has become, nor does he display the sociopathic tendencies that the narrator carries into adulthood, when he returns home from a career as a prison guard in Canada to care for his dying mother. The power of this novel lies in the alternating voices of the eight year old boy and the man that he has become, in the lack of distance (it’s all scene and no summary, which lends the narrative an immediacy and focus) and the deft juxtaposition of humour and a sometimes startling inappropriateness, as the narrator’s manipulations and self-deceptions begin to retreat before the obviousness of the grief he has caused his mother. As his mother fades towards death and loses her physical and psychological dominion over him, he is able to be tender towards her, recognising that while the emotional distance he has always felt from others is now, with the loss of the only person who might love him, absolute – he is ultimately able to take responsibility for his life, and, in the final flux of past, present and future – his actions – both the feelings that engendered them and the deeper feelings that lie concealed.

Rocks in the Belly, Jon Bauer, Scribe, 2010.

From the dustjacker – ‘How far can you push a child?’