Oct/Nov 1998 Book Reviews

The Breaking

Kathryn Heyman
Phoenix Paperbacks, 1998 199pp
ISBN: 0 75380 122 1

reviewed by Ann Skea

Kathryn Heyman may now live in Scotland but she has not forgotten the tones and language of her native Australians or the flavour of life in a small New South Wales country town. Both of these she recreates with great skill in _The Breaking_. She is good, too, at capturing the mood and voices of disaffected young people who live marginal lives in the heart of Sydney.

Boolaroo, the town Heyman describes, really does exist. But it is unlikely that Mat Sweet was ever its policeman, or that its present residents will relish this picture of a Boolaroo family's life, even if statistics do show that around Australia (and elsewhere too, most likely) one in four women suffer abuse in the home.

Sarah, Mat's daughter, knows that Mat Sweet is "the best" at breaking horses: "You could ask anybody, they'd tell you". And Kathryn Heyman writes superbly as she describes Mat's skills. Sarah, as a child, is part of the scene - one of the watchers on the fence, young enough to be ignored and to be innocent of the degradation and crudity of the men's ritual repartee. Sarah watches Mat constantly, learns from him and loves him. But Mat's temper is unpredictable and his polio-crippled younger daughter, Kari, is his favourite.

For the first part of this book, everything - Mat's life, that of her sister, Kari, her mother and others - is seen through the young Sarah's eyes. We interpret her observations from our own adult perspective. This strategy works well because nothing is black and white. The Sweet family is, to them, quite normal. Mat's moods determine the good and bad times, and Sarah's childhood energy, frustrations, joys and disappointments, and her mixed feelings for her family, are real and understandable. So, too, is her interpretation (or possibly, misinterpretation) of the incident which puts Kari in a coma. This incident ends Sarah's childhood just as surely as the changes in her body put an end to her tomboy freedoms.

Part two of the book jumps ahead to Sarah's twenties and her life in Sydney. Some of Mal's unpredictable temper has rubbed off on her and she is angry, cynical, directionless and lonely. She works as an unqualified carer in a kindergarten, lives in the Caretaker's Flat in an inner city warehouse which has been converted into offices and, after a violent fight with her boyfriend, she spends the weekends taking endless, solitary, ferry trips to fill the time. When Zan - tiny, tough, zany, sexy and lesbian - almost accidentally enters her life, Sarah finds herself attracted and curious. Kathryn Heyman handles the relationship between the two women so delicately that, again, the mixed emotions, preconceptions, individuality and tensions of the relationship are understandable and very real.

Zan's gradual move away from total involvement with Sarah, and the sudden, unwanted intrusion of a family crisis, move the action again to Boolaroo. Going home shows Sarah the changes in herself and in her family. Even the town has changed, and she sees it now with new awareness. The awkwardness of family interactions, the raw mixture of emotions as decisions about Kari are made and carried out, the sense of things changed and yet unchanged, all these are superbly handled.

This is a remarkable debut novel for Kathryn Heyman. My only real problem with the book is in the metaphorical link which is presumable intended between the title and the story. Sarah is not broken as Mat's horses are. She learns from life and grows to independence through experience. The mixture of tenderness and cruel authority which Mat employs on his horses does not, in the end, work on his family. And whilst Sarah does break away from her family, it is Mat, perhaps, who is the one who is broken. But, then, there were signs all along that he never was completely whole.


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