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September 4, 2006 | by  | in Books |
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Davey Darling

If you’ve been searching in vain for a classic coming-of-age novel, set in the suburbs of the South Island in the 1970s, following the only son of a painfully working class couple, who spend the best part of each day drinking, smoking and whining, then look no further; Davey Darling is the book for you!

If not, and let’s face it, not many readers have such specific requirements, then this book may not initially urge you to open and consume it in one sitting. I was dubious to say the least, but I persevered and was pleasantly surprised. Shannon, who grew up in Ashburton, seems to have followed the advice “write what you know”, assiduously. The first few pages, which reek of Kiwi colloquialisms, put me off. Oh god, I thought, do I want to read a whole book of this? But strangely I did. Shannon’s knowledge of his subject has paid off, allowing him to litter his first novel with wonderful detail, thorough descriptions of an old-fashioned copper, tea room, pub, and both hilarious,and at times tragic dialogue.

Of course, a few interesting details and clever lines are not enough to keep me reading a novel. I want characters, drama, a plot that can hold water, that sort of thing. Again, Davey Darling did not disappoint. The plot, while simple, centres around a fight over a woman, which results in one man literally boiling another man’s head. This unusually shocking event creates just enough tension to keep the story’s momentum going right to the last page. This method of focusing on only one plot strand is reasonably rare in novels, and made me feel like I was reading a short story that somehow managed to keep on going for 250 pages without tiring. This is an observation, not a criticism, because the effect was surprisingly satisfying. Such a decision may not have been so successful had the novel been narrated by a less likeable, charismatic and convincing character than Davey.

Davey, the 12-year-old son of beerswilling Tiny and chain-smoking Thelma, has been born with a mouth that he can’t keep shut. The motif saying of the novel is “watch your tongue, Davey.” This characteristic obviously gets him into trouble, but in an odd way makes him more endearing.

So a man’s head gets boiled. What then? You may well ask. There is a slow, yet oddly compelling, period where Davey’s family decides what to do about the head-boiling fiasco that unfortunately happened at their house. Tiny lies to the cops to protect his mate, who held the other man’s head in the copper. Thelma frets repetitively and annoyingly with her girlfriend, over whom the fight began. And Davey watches, interpreting the adults reactions with a believable mixture of naiveté and wisdom. This period of indecision slowly gathers speed and suspense as the situation becomes more serious. And then, when you expect it to be all over after a satisfying court case in which the head-boiler is put away, something else happens! Something unexpected and dramatic but probably altogether a bit too tidy, in terms of tying up loose ends.

Regardless of how much I expected to dislike this book, it was a pleasant, diverting read, with an authentic New Zealand feel. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if one-day high school teachers are including it on their curriculum.

By Paul Shannon
Penguin $28.00

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