|Oct/Nov 2002 Book Reviews|
Random House, (Nov. 2000) 90 pages
ISBN: 1 74051 020 8
Ashmol Williamson is a smart kid whose sister, Kellyanne, has two imaginary friends he would like to kill, but he can't because they don't exist.
His mother, a homesick pom (Aussie slang for an English migrant) who works in the local supermarket to keep the family alive, is more accepting. Asked why she set places at the dinner table for non-existent people she tells Ashmol that they are quieter and better behaved than he is and deserve the grub. In any case, she is used to dealing with his father, who spends his days grubbing about down a hole dreaming of the opal find which will make them "bloody millionaires." Pobby and Dingan seem to her to be just as real as this million-dollar opal.
Then, Ashmol's father, who used to side with him and make sarcastic comments about Pobby and Dingan, changes sides. Ashmol is philosophical, figuring that it is just a ploy: "He wasn't a very subtle sort of bloke, my dad, when it came down to it. He drank too much for a start and spent too much time underground in the dark."
But the same applies to half the population of Lightning Ridge. And if you ever wondered what it must be like to live in a hot, dry place in Australia which only exists because of the opals found there, only came into existence after the first opal was accidentally found in 1901, and is full of fiercely independent people, then Ashmol Williamson seems as good a person as any to tell you. He goes to school there, knows all about digging mining shafts and tunnels and noodling in the tailings, and knows the unwritten rules about not ratting on other miners' claims. And after Kellyanne's friends go missing (carelessly left behind at the mine by his father) and Kellyanne gets sick, he gets to know the townspeople even better, because he decides to ask every one in the town to help find them:
LOST! HELP! KELLYANNE WILLIAMSON'S FRIENDS POBBY AND DINGAN DESCRIPTION: IMAGINARY. QUIET. REWARD IF FOUND.
Soon just about everyone in Lightning Ridge is looking for Pobby and Dingan, and some even claim to have found them. But Kellyanne knows when they are lying or just pretending.
Well, if I say any more I will have told you the whole story--but not half as well as Ashmol Williamson tells it. All I will say, is that Ashmol is smarter than some of the other adults in the book. He's a pretty good amateur philosopher, for a kid, and he has a dry, down-to-earth, Aussie way of saying things which is both penetrating and funny. And Pobby and Dingan, for two non-existent people who love Violet Crumble chocolate bars and dancing in the lightning storms, cause a heap of trouble and anguish, but they do also bring out the best in people. And they are eventually found.
And who is to say, in a place like Lightning Ridge which was never settled by the Aboriginal Australians, perhaps because of the powerful spirits that inhabit the ironstone ridge and cause the lightning--who is to say whether Kellyanne's friends were real or not?
NB. Ben Rice's delightful story about Pobby and Dingan was first published in the Australia edition of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing, No. 70 Winter 2000.