By Scot Gardner
Allen & Unwin, 2011.
I’m always a little suspicious of a book with a glowing endorsement on the front cover, in this case: “I have never read a book more gripping, not more triumphantly alive”. I’m even more apprehensive when said endorsement is by John Marsden, arguably the most successful Australian author of young adult fiction.
With such strong approbation declared, I approached The dead I know with some trepidation, fearing that the publisher may have had to sell this one too hard. After devouring the book in a matter of days (which would have been hours had my family afforded me the luxury) I can happily report that nothing could be further than the truth.
This book is a glorious triumph. Glorious. Gardner tackles the difficult and sensitive topic of death with tender dignity, weaving it into the mysterious past of the protagonist Aaron Rowe.
We meet Aaron on his first day as a trainee funeral director. Aaron is clearly a troubled young man: he walks in his sleep, has nightmares, and lives in a caravan park with an elderly, confused lady he calls “Mam”. Under the benevolent guidance of the funeral director John Barton and the persistent scrutiny of Barton’s young daughter Skye, we gradually come to understand the truth about Aaron’s past.
Gardner is an established author, having written numerous books for children and young adults, receiving shortlist nominations for two: Burning Eddy (CBCA Award) and Gravity (NSW Premier’s Literary Award). Whilst I have enjoyed his previous work, it is possible that I may run out of superlatives for the quality and finesse of Gardner’s writing in this particular book.
The dead I know is both haunting and evocative. It deals with the brutality of death and does not shrink from the pragmatics of the funeral business. Yet amidst the death, Gardner is able to convey to the reader the beauty of the human spirit. The clarity and harmony of Gardner’s prose about life, love and death moved me beyond description.
In the enigmatic and troubled Aaron, Gardner manages to create a thoroughly likeable and sympathetic protagonist. The supporting characters render the reader’s faith in the decency of the human spirit. Despite the gentle complaisance of the main characters, the plot is gripping with tension building on many fronts until the the reader finally faces Aaron’s past simultaneously with him.
Marsden was right. The dead I know is a beautiful, evocative book about death, and the love and life that precedes it. All lovers of young adult fiction simply must read this book.
Recommended age 13+