Monday, June 16, 2014

My Brother Jack, by George Johnston

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

This absorbing Australian Classic paints a picture of what it must have been like growing up in Australia during the interwar years. George Johnston describes the language, political views and domestic habits of Australians from this era in fascinating detail.

George Johnston worked as a journalist and war correspondent. He also wrote quite a few novels. The one he is best remembered for is My Brother Jack (1964). My Brother Jack is actually the first book in a trilogy of autobiographical novels, with Clean Straw for Nothing following in 1969. The final instalment, A Cartload of Clay, was never fully finished as Johnston died while writing it, in 1970. It was published the following year.

My Brother Jack is unambiguous autobiographical fiction. The protagonist, David Meredith, is a fairly sensitive Australian lad who goes on to become a journalist. His brother, Jack, is your typically uncouth male Aussie of the time. His language is colourful and he’s blunt in his opinions and views of life. The novel traces, in fairly slow, meandering detail, David’s growing up in the interwar years. The title is perhaps a bit of a misnomer, as My Brother Jack really concentrates on David, not so much Jack. Jack appears here and there, but he’s not really that big or overwhelming a presence.

The most interesting aspect of the novel is the picture it paints of Australian life during the 1920s to 1940s. The language, political views and domestic habits of Australians are described in quite fascinating detail. You get a real feel for what it must have been like growing up in that time. As I was reading I kept on thinking of Barry Humphries’ frequent complaints of how philistine and backward Australian culture was at this time. Johnston pretty much explains why Australians did leave the country in order to pursue careers or broaden their cultural and intellectual spheres.

Johnston’s self-portrait in My Brother Jack is quite interesting but not overwhelmingly so. The reader gets the impression of a reticent, equivocating character, someone who dreads having to make clear decisions. I felt that Johnston’s earnestness was a little too much, like he was pleading with the reader to forgive his failings.

Having said that, I very much enjoyed My Brother Jack. It’s a frequently very absorbing novel and it provides a great history lesson on what the suburbs of Melbourne were like after the First World War and during the Great Depression.

My Brother Jack, by George Johnston. Published by HarperPerennial. ISBN: 9780732288471 RRP: $17.99

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