Marketed as Young Adult, Sweet Damage is the second novel from Rebecca James delving into the nature of friendship and relationships in a way that works for older audiences as well.
One of the things that got me reading when I was young was a shared interest in books with my grandmother. We talked a lot about books, often while reading the same one, and all through Sweet Damage I found myself wishing she was still alive. This is exactly the sort of book that the teenage me would have been clamouring to talk to her about.
The story starts off simply enough: an easy-going young kitchenhand has to get off his ex-girlfriend’s couch as her current boyfriend is underwhelmed by his presence. In the way that so many of us ended up in share houses of all sorts, he sees an ad in the paper and takes a room in a beautiful big house in a very upper-class suburb. Of course it’s cheap, but as the only catch seems to be the young, agoraphobic, slightly odd landlady in residence, and Tim’s not the sort to get particularly fussed about anything like that, it looks like a very sweet deal indeed.
Tim really doesn’t get too fussed about anything much: he’s a bit of a drifter, and in some ways the perfect foil for both his ex-girlfriend, Lilla, who is decidedly prickly and controlling, and now his landlady, Anna, who is lost, waif-like and fragile. He does not, however, need to be constantly hit over the head to realise that things in the house are not quite as they seem to be:
As I stand up, the pounding continues. Deafening. Insistent. A feeling of dread grips me, making my skin go cold. I swallow and shout, ‘Okay, okay. Hold on a minute!’ trying to sound as though I’m not frightened, as though my heart isn’t beating frantically and all the blood isn’t draining from my face.
The cleverness of Sweet Damage is that while it is very gothic in style, there is also a message woven into the genre framework of the old house, the unknown secrets within its walls, the spirit-like inhabitant trapped inside by agoraphobia, obviously hiding a secret, and the young, virile and unflappable hero. As well as the building sense of ‘other’, of things going bump in the night, there are a number of lurking presences that are more real. Old friends of Anna’s, Marcus and Fiona, are present, yet somehow separate, slightly off. Even Tim’s ex-girlfriend Lilla seems to be pathologically unable to move on and stays, needling and picking away at everything he says and does.
Everywhere there’s that slight sense of dread, the feeling that obviously something is happening or has happened and is being covered up. It’s hard to identify, partly because of the skilful portrayal of Anna as a character – she’s tricky to pin down, ambiguous, distant and yet very much part of the story. Tim is also not without his problems, his tendency to roll with circumstances, to allow things to happen, making it difficult to see whether he really is cut out to be the hero of the piece.
But the message that slowly reveals itself as the suspense rises is interesting. While it’s a story about young adults, and the things that go wrong, and right, in life, and the consequences, it’s also a story about manipulation and people behaving very, very badly. A sort of a cautionary tale, if you like. And definitely one I would have loved a chance to talk to my grandmother about.
Rebecca James Sweet Damage, Allen & Unwin, 2013, PB, 304pp, $24.99
Karen Chisholm blogs from http://www.austcrimefiction.org, where she posts book reviews well as author biographies.
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