Peter Goldsworthy is a relatively well-known Australian author that I’ve until now never read. He’s one of those amazingly multi-talented writers who has published poetry, short fiction, novels, plays, non-fiction and even libretti. Not to mention also being a qualified doctor.
Everything I Knew is is seventh novel, set in the South Australian town of Penola in the 1960s. Robert Burns, son of a policeman, is about to start high school and drag himself through the earthquake of puberty. His happy life has consisted of rabbiting with his best friend, Aboriginal Billy, sitting in their treehouse drinking illicit whisky and riding around town on his Malvern Star.
But the arrival of Miss Pamela Peach, Robbie’s high school class teacher, turns his life upside-down and by the end of his first year of high school, he will have played a hand in a tragedy that will haunt him for the rest of his life. The tiny Miss Peach arrives in Penola from the ‘city’ (Adelaide) and soon all the mothers and girls are imitating her french roll and the fathers are drooling over her tight stirrup pants and sassy Vespa. The story is told in first person, present tense and totally immerses the reader in the interior life of a teenage boy. Robbie of course falls for Miss Peach at just the time puberty is rocking his world and soon disguards Billy in favour of spying on the object of his desire from the safety of his treehouse.
But Robbie is also a budding chemist who loves to write and is obsessed with science fiction and in Miss Peach now has an adult who will actually encourage his talent. Miss Peach has got other ideas for Penola, introducing it to complicated Italian films and randy poets from the city as part of her Lyceum club. But the locals are only interested in the exoticism of the new arrival and the marble cake for supper and her efforts to inject some culture into the local philistines is bound to fail.
There’s so many lovely things about this book. The characterisation is wonderful – the hilarious lesbian couple Miss Peach lives with, thinly disguised as spinsters, are like a Laurel and Hardy double act, whose piecing observations send up Robbie’s naivety. Robbie’s copper Dad executes his job ‘without fear or favour’ even when it involves his own ‘Sonny Jim’ son. And the visiting professor poet, object of Miss Peach’s adoration, is the model of drunken adulterer with an inflated sense of his own genius.
The descriptions are very fresh and Goldsworthy’s voice has a real spring to it. But there’s more to this story than just the hilarity to be got from documenting the excruciating thought processes going on inside of a teenage boy’s brain. There’s the barely contained racism that allows people to be tolerant and indulgent of Indigenous people only when there isn’t a chance they might conform to rigidly held stereotypes. As soon as there’s trouble, the finger is inevitably pointed. And there’s a real sense of hopelessness to Miss Peach’s longing for some higher culture but still in the end shackled to the conformity expected of young single women back then.
The story ends with the narrator revisiting his boyhood town in 2007. I found it a bit long and wasn’t as engaging as the rollocking tone of the earlier story. But its a nice reflection on the nature of memory and how it distorts the past. The real skill Goldsworthy has is the ability to slide from the contrasting tones of comedy to farce to tragedy, without diminishing any of them. This is one of the best coming-of-age stories I’ve read in ages and just shows what a skilful writer he is.