Julienne Van Loon
Julienne Van Loon has an acute eye and ear for writing place, as her previous novel, Road Story, highlighted. In Harmless, a short and compelling work, she has crafted a story that locates four central characters in the sparseness of Perth’s fringes, a landscape in which people confront both a disruptive sense of alienation and their desperate attempts to emotionally reconnect with family and loved ones.
The ensemble cast of Harmless includes Dave, a career criminal and all round desperado, who we meet at the beginning a long prison sentence for armed robbery; his young daughter, Amanda, a girl we both fear and admire for her sense of street-wise resilience (who uses wonderfully economical language, including the much neglected ‘fuck-knuckle’); Sua, Dave’s girlfriend, who is escaping a troubled past in her homeland, Thailand, and the dark secret she carries with her; and her father, Rattuwat, a man burdened by a sense of failure as a father, who has arrived in Australia under tragic circumstances.
The novel begins on a road outside Perth when Rattuwat and young Amanda become separated after their car – a bomb – has broken down while they are driving to visit Dave in prison. The subsequent chapters of the novel provide insights into the each character’s life, including their connection to Sua, told in backstory. The emotional entwinement between Dave, Amanda, Rattuwat and Sua is conveyed with simplicity, depth and raw honestly.
Dave and Amanda were literally thrown together when she was a young baby in a shitty nappy. She screams and rallies against him, while he is sometimes forced to leave her alone in their home in an effort to contain his own rage, a rage that might otherwise be taken out on her. Somehow he manages to construct a life for themselves, along with an older son from a previous relationship, Ant, and eventually Sua, who seeks Dave’s protection from a violent relationship. From the broken lives of four people a semblance of domestic normality is created, absent of sentimentality or moral rehabilitation.
While Dave waits impatiently in a prison cell for his daughter and the old man to visit, Amanda and Rattuwat reflect on the circumstances encircling their predicament. Her thoughts are more immediate. She is a true survivor, a child necessarily wise beyond her years, who reacts to the pragmatic realities of life as second nature. She comes across as both tough and genuinely loving, vulnerable and instinctively self-protective. She knows when to approach an adult and when to hide, when to stay and when to go. We know that she and her father love each other dearly, having survived the beatings of a life on the margins. We also know their opportunities are limited.
Rattuwat is a man in a state of emotional alienation. He has left his home for a strange land in circumstances that no parent would wish for, and becomes more confused after his arrival, be it due to those who greet him at the airport, the lack of custom displayed in dealing with loss and grief, or the array of soft drinks on offer in a roadhouse refrigerator. While contemplating his sense of perceived failure, Rattuwat, like Amanda, and Dave in the lock-up, must also deal with the reality of his immediate circumstances. He is a man who is thirsty, tired and lost.
Harmless is 137 pages long – a ‘novella’, perhaps. There is a lot for a reader to contemplate in this story. I was left with thoughts of tolerance, acceptance and honesty. Reflecting on the political landscape of Australia and the persistent and cruel mantra ‘we will decide who comes to this country and in what circumstances’, I was left thinking about the circumstances under that which refugees arrive in Australia; not so much their economic circumstances, but their story, the one carried in their bloodstream, in their hearts.
And as a reader I was left knowing that sometimes less is truly more.