Monday, 4 March 2019

Book review: The Rip, Mark Brandi (2019)

This curious novel is focalised entirely though the character of a young woman, whose name we are not told, and who lives in a park with a man named Anton. The two are friends. Anton had been in prison but now they survive by squeegeeing the windscreens of cars and begging and Centrelink. The primary character is a heroin user and one day Anton and she meet with a man named Steve who invites them to return to his apartment. He gives the narrator a deal of the drug and she shoots up and she and Anton stay the night.

Anton and Steve start burgling properties and stealing things that they take to a fence who doesn’t require an ID. The narrator is still staying at Steve’s place with her dog Sunny but she gets curious about the lock on Steve’s bedroom door and gets a knife from the kitchen and tries to remove the screws that are holding the latch in place. Then Steve comes home.

There is a disturbing feeling of dread underlying much of the drama in this book, and the police form a regular element of the rhythm of life. From time to time the narrator talks with a police officer she calls Dirty Doug who might give her ten dollars if she is begging when they meet. Doug warns her about Steve. She also goes to the Salvos for a meal. There are other places that she and Anton go to for supplies but once they are involved with Steve things start to go from bad to worse. People are trying to get in touch with the girl who rents the apartment Steve and the two friends are staying in and the narrator starts to wonder about two large containers she can see in Steve’s bedroom from outside the window down the side of the house.

This is the first novel about a homeless person I have read. In real life, only a small proportion of the people who are homeless on any given night sleep rough like Anton and the girl in Brandi’s interesting book. Most homeless people are couch surfing or living in casual accommodation, but when people think of homelessness they automatically think of the people they see on city street corners begging, or sleeping in sleeping bags in parks. Most people will not know how such people came to find themselves in this type of situation. It might be because they were always living in foster homes when they were growing up and never got a proper education, like Brandi’s hero. Or they might have been in jail, like Anton, and had not been able to find a place to rent or a job to pay a wage to pay the rent with.

As Brandi’s narrator knows, many people who sleep rough have multiple problems; with substance abuse, with mental illness, or a combination of the two. They may have suffered abuse as a child and have never been able to get their act together for long enough to secure employment or an education. This is why she gives money to people she meets in the parks around Melbourne after she has been out begging. Because she knows the truth.

As a character she is fully realised, and you are provided with a sort of stream-of-consciousness as she goes about her business during the day. Popular culture furnishes a fair number of the referents that she uses in these monologues with different people she conducts in her head. Often it is with Anton, who she has a special connection to that is characterised by a fierce loyalty. She has a rich interior life, which is something that might surprise most people, who if they think about homeless people and junkies only ever think about how unsightly or inconvenient they are.

At the core of this novel, which keeps you turning the pages impatiently, is a crime the nature of which you are given only the slightest clues at the outset. Certainly the narrator’s safety is often uppermost in the reader’s mind. Things are not even perfectly clear by the time you reach the denouement. What is clear is that there is often a strong current against which people are forced to fight for much of their lives, just so that they can survive. Just to be able to get enough money to eat, to keep a roof over their heads, to make a relationship work. The forces that impede many people are often unseen but no less real for that. Brandi has given the community another way to frame the world of the homeless person. Instead of asking a rough sleeper to move on, it is possible instead to put out a container of water for their dog.

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