Title: Hey Brother
Author: Jarrah Dundler
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 1st August 2018
Synopsis: A genuine and compellingly portrayed family drama of a tough kid from rural Australia.
Before leaving for war in Afghanistan, Shaun Black gives his little brother Trysten a mission of his own. Keep out of trouble.
Trysten tries, but with Mum hitting the bottle harder than ever and his dad not helping, Trysten responds the only way he knows how, with his fists – getting into a fight at school and lining up for another one with his uncle who’s come to stay.
When the family receives news that Shaun will be home for Christmas, Trysten is sure that good times are coming. But when Shaun returns, Trysten soon realises he has a whole new mission – to keep Shaun out of trouble.
Hey Brother tells the story of a tough kid from the bush whose world comes crashing down on his shoulders. But with his own blend of fury, resilience and deadpan humour, Trysten proves to be up for every challenge.
Hey Brother is set in the early 2000s, just after 9/11. Trysten Black’s brother, Shaun, has gone over to fight against the Taliban with the Australian and US armies, leaving Shaun at home to take care of their mother, whose troubles with alcohol scare, and worry them both, but also tells him to keep out of trouble – easy, right? Trysten reckons it will be – until a new girl – Jessica – starts in his year. Together with best friend Ricky, who has a crush on the girl who befriends Jessica, Jade, As the months go on, the boys get to know Jessica and Jade, and even begin to hang out together at school. On top of this, Trysten must look out for his Mum, and keep an eye on his uncle, who has come to stay while Shaun is away.
As he tries to care for his mother, and make sure he gets along with his uncle, Trevor, Trysten’s promise to stay out of trouble seems to be forgotten between this and building his relationship with Jessica – and when Shaun returns home, Trysten’s family will be tested – his father, who has lived away from the home for months, seems to have a change of heart, and his mother is improving. But there’s something about Shaun that Trysten can’t quite put his finger on, and a party, and the subsequent events during the summer holidays will bring to a head everything that has been building with Shaun and reveal secrets about the family that Trysten never knew about or saw coming, and revelations about the world and their lives show things will never be the same.
Hey Brother is a coming of age story, set in the early years of the twenty-first century, when terrorism entered our world, and how we all reacted to it – how some of our worlds didn’t change, how as a teenager, Trysten’s mind was often on school, Jessica, his friends and his family, rather than a faraway attack and war. He is the go-between messenger for his parents, and it looks at how war can affect soldiers – at the way Shaun comes home and tells a story one way, but the reality is quite different and the PTSD that he brings back with him – something Uncle Trevor notices and does his best to help with. As mental illness and alcohol abuse are explored through Trysten’s eyes, as a child narrator he comes across as mature at times, and immature at others, perhaps hinting at how fast he is having to grow up and adapt to this new, uncharted territory his family finds themselves in, coupled with hormones and the influences of friends, his and his brother’s, as well as events that trigger the climax, and how Trysten finds himself dealing with the fallout.
The genre of this book is hard to pin down – I’ve marked it as literary fiction but is it young adult, adult or does it cross those two distinctions? Possibly, but I think that will depend on the individual. It was an interesting take on a modern war and its fallout, and a modern family dealing with personal issues and secrets that come out towards the end. It is raw and emotional and shows that we are all just human and anything can affect us in different ways at any time, and nobody is immune to the fragility of the mind and the way it processes things.
In some ways I liked this book and what it did, though it is not one I plan to revisit too quickly like others. It is one that needs time and processing between reads to maintain the impact it can have. It does reveal something about Australia and our culture, attitudes to war and how we deal with things like mental health, and these are important conversations to have, and I hope Jarrah Dundler’s work is one that helps start these discussions amongst people.