8 June 2012
Review 44: Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis
So far, this is comfortably my least favourite book on the Carnegie shortlist. Whilst it was okay and covered some interesting and important themes, it was just a bit dull. Nothing really happened until half way through and if I hadn't been reading it for Carnegie, I probably wouldn't have finished it. It has some appealing elements but the endless descriptions of cattle just got a bit boring for me.
First Line: "I'd known for ages how a baby was made."
Why I read it: It is currently on the Carnegie shortlist.
Who I would recommend it to: People who like gently paced family dramas, animal stories or are interested in the Australian outback.
Everybody Jam is the story of Danny Dawson and his family. They live on a cattle farm in the Australian outback and all of the story takes place in their home on on their land, although characters visit other places, we do not go with them. The story is told from Danny's perspective and he does not leave home and so we stay with him there. Danny lives with his parents and his two sisters, Sissy and Emily. Sissy is fourteen and has just been discovered to be pregnant, and refuses to say who the father is. At the beginning of the novel, the family is also joined by Liz, an English girl who is travelling and comes to work for them. Danny's older brother, Jonny, died in an accident at some point in the year before the story begins and the impact of this has shaken his family, both in terms of the obvious results of grief but also in terms of the careful balance of their family whereby Jonny was the eldest and the sibling who helped his father, a mantel which Danny must now take up. Danny's family runs with very traditional roles, his father is the provider who runs the cattle farm and tends towards aggressiveness and is uncomfortable with expressing himself. His mother takes care of the family and home and is the comforter whilst also tending towards stress. The family struggles to deal with Sissy getting pregnant so young and unmarried. There are also uncomfortable issues of race in terms of the Aboriginales who work on the farm but are treated as second class. I must admit, I assumed initially that this was set in the past due to the attitudes towards the black people in the novel but there were enough references to modern music or gadgets that I think it must be set now. I am not well versed in race politics in the Australian outback and how accurate or indicative this is, but I was taken aback, as is Liz, by the way in which black workers are treated and spoken about.
The story focuses around the annual cattle muster, when all the farm's cattle are rounded up and counted and marked and it is decided which to sell, kill or set free again. Danny is beside himself with excitement at being able to help for the first time and has his heart set on camping out with the men during the muster. One of my primary criticisms of the novel is the focus on the muster and the animals. There is so much description of the muster and the cows throughout the book and I was just completely bored of it. I'm not really an animal lover to begin with, so the endless description of them running around or being herded or dying were monotonous and repetitive for me. Danny also tries to tame a camel and I found this dull as well. What I assume was intended to be a big dramatic moment is when Buzz, the camel, gets lost and Danny tries to find him. I just really couldn't have cared less what happened to the camel. There are also endless descriptions of what the family eats which I didn't mind as much as I find food more interesting than animals, but still it started to wear thin by the end.
Basically, the chief problem is that it is not an exciting book. Nothing much really happens until about half way through when we find out who got Sissy pregnant, and then the muster starts and they find out a drought in some areas of the farm has caused lots of the cows to die. But this still isn't written in a particularly fast-paced way and the initialy excitement quickly died down. Lewis isn't a bad writer, and the whole novel is very evocative and really conjures up the dusty, dry Australian outback, but the slow pace and focus on animals and food just doesn't drive the narrative forwards. I would have preferred much more focus on the family element, I would have liked more backstory for Liz and more focus on Sissy who feels rather sidelined despite her dramatic pregnancy. I felt like I knew nothing about Sissy, she is mute for the majority of the novel.
Danny is an adequate hero. He can be annoying and childish but is largely inoffensive, but you don't exactly root for him. I found I wasn't fussed about whether he got to go on the muster and only really wanted him to be allowed to go just so we could get a bit of change of setting. There are some good moments, a drive that Liz and Danny take to the dump where they happen across an old birthday card from Jonny to Danny is touching. Liz was probably my favourite character, she is clearly written to be sympathetic and as an English girl she also had more experiences in common with me. I enjoyed the bits with Liz in the most.
For me, this is the weakest on the Carnegie shortlist. It is the only one that I wasn't enthusiastic about. I think that Lewis has a great deal of potential as a writer but this is just too boring, particularly for a children's novel. The characters needed more backstory and the story just needed more variation and action and less description of cows.