Moving between mordant humor and contemplations on life and death, this compelling, compact Australian novel is narrated by Aaron Rowe as he starts work at John Barton’s funeral parlor. He is a reticent and troubled young man, though we only gradually learn the full extent of his problems, and his new job satisfies his need for certainty and order. His home life is a mess: Mam is descending into dementia and at night, Aaron’s sleep is beset by an unfolding nightmare about a dead woman.
Aaron’s narration is scattered with precise descriptive vocabulary – examples include lugubrious, unmanned and lucid – which, along with his musings on death and the dead, show him to be unusually literate and reflective. He is calm with, and accepting of, death, even as he responds with “abject and irrational fear [to] the raw emotions of those left alive.” The occasional flash of black wit leavens this intense novel, without breaking the mood or seeming out of character.
The Barton family are wonderfully drawn: John is quiet, neat and methodical, while his wife and daughter are vibrant and chaotic – and it seems Aaron ultimately needs both to flourish. Everything he has walled up begins to seep through, and he begins to accept that he feels “hungry for a place in the world.”
As the mystery of Aaron’s life is slowly unraveled for both himself and the reader, a resolution evolves that flows from the characters and the situation and, even in only 201 pages, will leave thoughtful teen readers more than satisfied.