Inside the CBCA Shortlist
Scot Gardner explores the young male experience with authenticity, most unexpectedly in the incomparable The Dead I Know, set in a funeral parlour, and most recently in Changing Gear (Allen & Unwin), which is very well written and engaging.
Gardner hooks the reader into Changing Gear with some retrospective interaction between 10-year-old Merrick and his grandfather, a virtuosic farter. Grandad is Merrick’s companion and mentor: “He became a kid when we were together, and I became a man”. Over eight years they walked sections of the Great South West Walk in Victoria but didn’t finish the whole two hundred and fifty kilometres because Grandad died unexpectedly.
The author then aligns the thoughtful reader with 18-year-old Merrick through snatches of consummate characterisation to show his anxiety, feeling of invisibility, porn addiction and fringe-zeitgeist decision to not drink or eat animals. Gardner also layers his writing with philosophy and evocative descriptions of the bushland he knows well. This fine literary writing is also engaging.
Merrick’s parents have new partners and young children. Merrick lives between the two families and loves them both but hadn’t realised “the energy needed to change gears between houses”. Dealing with his grandfather’s death, looming final exams and the uncertainty of adulthood and change, Merrick takes off without a phone on his postie bike, Brunnhilde. He may be trying to challenge himself and erase old habits before he is thrust into a new future.
On his road trip he encounters Victor, a homeless wanderer who was a professor of economics. Victor “spoke in poems” and has an “eidetic memory for country”: he knows and remembers landscape. Through humorous, dangerous and momentous experiences, Merrick learns to appreciate the rhythm, lessons and joys of the journey and the kindness of people rather than obsessing about the destination. Victor, who fills some of the “grandad-shaped hole” in Merrick’s heart, shows him how to “Know thyself” and change gear.
Scot Garner’s website is http://scotgardner.com/
Using the book with students:
Eidetic Memory & Landscape Victor “spoke in poems” and has an “eidetic memory for country”: he knows and remembers landscape, he recalls images vividly and clearly, he can see memories as photographs, pages 134,148-9. He traverses the country like Aboriginal people have done with songlines: “guided through the country by the memories preserved in song and folklore, taking their cues from the landscape, p134.
Students view photographs of the Australian landscape. There are some Australian free stock photos at https://www.pexels.com/or or search for others. Write eidetic poems based on one photo or memory of the Australian landscape. The poems aim to demonstrate extraordinarily accurate and vivid recall of detailed images.
Change Gear The students who are reading this novel are likely to be facing a range of stresses. They may prefer not to discuss these with the whole class but the class can suggest causes of stress for their age group and ways to change gear. Psychiatrist Dr Christian Heim has a growing online presence where he offers wise advice based on his professional career. Follow Dr Christian Heim on Instagram and explore podcasts and blog posts on his website https://www.drchristianheim.com/