By Claire ZornYoung Adult UQP
A beautifully written, deeply felt novel about grief, adolescence and family.
The Protected starts nearly a year after Hannah’s sister Katie died in a car accident; her family is predictably shattered as a result. Her father, who was driving the car, is injured and awaiting a court date to assess his culpability, and her seriously depressed mother hasn’t left the house since the funeral.
When Hannah is forced to talk to the school counsellor – after months of refusing or remaining mute with psychologists – her story gradually begins to unfold. It’s not just the story of what happened with her sister, or the way her family no longer functions. Before the accident, she was badly bullied … and Katie offered little help or sympathy.
The Protected deals with serious issues and deep sadness, but it also locates hope, and a path out of mourning. Hannah’s burgeoning friendship with new boy Josh offers unexpected light and much-needed companionship.
Zorn skilfully evokes the dull ache of ongoing grief and loss, interspersing the big loss of Hannah’s sister with the earlier loss of Hannah’s childhood best friend to popularity, and her experience of being outcast and bullied. This is a brilliantly complex treatment, made more real and poignant by Hannah’s struggle with her feelings of relief about the end to her bullying after Katie’s death, and her mixed emotions about her relationship with her.
Claire Zorn’s second novel traverses the difficult territory of grief and trauma with insight, originality and wit.
Hannah McCann’s older sister is dead, her father is in court over the crash, and her own feelings are cripplingly complicated.
Throughout Hannah’s struggle to rebuild a sense of self, characters major and minor breathe and bleed and evolve, and school and family life appear in vivid detail.
Avoiding both the easily inspirational and fashionably dark, Zorn has produced a fresh, funny tale with authentic dialogue that surprises and satisfies.
I have three months left to call Katie my older sister. Then the gap will close and I will pass her. I will get older. But Katie will always be fifteen, eleven months and twenty-one days old. She will always have a nose piercing and a long curly knot of dark hair. She will always think that The Cure is the greatest band of all time. She will always have a red band of sunburn on her lower back from our last beach holiday. Forever.
The bus jolts and shudders along the street, a box of heat and sweat and BO. My fellow students flick the odd spitball and hurl the occasional insult. Someone is a fat cow. Someone is going to do something filthy to someone else’s mother. Someone has a thing for Ms Thorne. There is laughter up the back but none of it is directed toward me. Nothing and no one touches me.
A fire is burning somewhere, across a gully, gums and leaf mulch are smouldering, the eucalypt oil hissing, tree-flesh twisting. The smoke drifts in a thick, putrid mass, up from the gully, over the ridge. It clings to the air, that acrid scent. It might be technically in its last month, but the Australian summer doesn’t stick to the calendar rules. The heat will hang around past its welcome.
The bus heaves itself around a corner and onto my street. It was a good street to invest in, my dad said. A fire ripped through years ago and took out nearly every house on this side of the gully. It scared the crap out of everyone. Prices dropped and my parents swooped.
‘Won’t see anything like that again for a while,’ he had told us, meaning the cataclysmic firestorm that ate homes and schools and the scout hall. We were smarter than those people. Dad designed a house with fire protection: sprinklers that cast great curtains of water mist, double brick, heat-proof glass. All that.
The people who live around this area fall into three main categories: tree-changer families, pensioners, and the people that have lived here forever, raised their kids in the family home and never moved. You can tell the tree-changers and forever families because they drive hybrid cars and have rainwater tanks and bird-feeders in their yards. The pensioners have flat squares of treeless grass out the front of their homes and hose leaves off their driveways. It’s weird to live in the Blue Mountains if you hate leaves so much – the place is full of trees.
A highway runs up and over the mountains, with small towns most of the way along it. Some places are popular with tourists and have cafés and boutiques and gift stores. Then there’s towns like ours: we have a newsagent, a bottle shop and a bakery that sells pies I’m pretty sure are just Sargents heated up in a microwave. There’s an unspoken rivalry between the upper and the lower mountains; those up the top think that the people who live further down are middle-class snobs and the lower-mountains residents call the ones up in Katoomba feral hippies or worse, greenies. We live midway up and my mum grew up here, so I guess that makes us middle- class forever greenies.
The bus pulls into my stop and I peel myself from the vinyl seat. I follow a handful of others down the aisle and off the bus. The air outside is fresher, but no cooler. I walk the two hundred metres from the bus stop to my house. My elderly neighbour, Mrs Van, is in her yard. She’s of the variety that despises leaves and she’s armed herself with a rake that’s bigger than she is. I don’t feel I have the resilience for a Mrs Van conversation right now. Katie would have stopped. She would have stopped and chatted to Mrs Van, not because she was a particularly chatty person, but because she knew the more she talked the more cash she would get in a Christmas card from Mrs Van at the end of the year.
She would stand next to me on our driveway and tell outrageous lies to Mrs Van. She once told her she was going to spend the holidays in Borneo building shelters for diabetic orangutans.
I wave to Mrs Van and quicken my pace up the front steps.
Inside the house is dark, curtains drawn against the heat. A pedestal fan whirs in the corner of the living room. Its blades make a tick, tick sound, like a slowly dying insect. I go up the hall. I turn the handle of her door very quietly and push open the door. The carpet is soft and spotless beneath my feet. Her bed is neatly made. A selection of lilac cushions are arranged on the silver-and-white striped doona cover. Her desk is clear. Pens and pencils stand in an empty jam jar. The cork- board on her wall remains crammed with photos and pictures torn from magazines: clothes, catwalk models, close-up shots of fabric patterns, feathers, coloured glass. She was always pinning new things up. Now dust clings to the curled corners of photos. Normally I don’t touch anything but this afternoon I slide the top drawer open and there on top of notepads and exercise books is her iPod. I put it in the pocket of my skirt. Then I just stand there in the middle of her room, my backpack still on my shoulders, my heart pounding.
I close the door behind me when I leave. At the end of the hall is Mum and Dad’s room. Mum is asleep on the bed, all the stuff that was piled on it – unread mail, used tissues, dirty clothes – is in a pile on the floor. I go to the kitchen to find something to eat.
My mother used to be a professional homemaker. She had a section in the weekend newspaper magazine where she would offer instruction on things like how to make a festive table centrepiece out of pine cones or the perfect method for roasting a leg of lamb. She was the type of person who could take an oil drum and turn it into a decoupage occasional table if you gave her fifteen minutes and some craft glue. Her true passion – and she was the kind of person who used that phrase a lot – was organic, GM-free baking; there was always some weird sort of muffins waiting for us when we got home from school, like pawpaw and flaxseed or something. She’d had a book published: The Wholefood Manifesto. Note, a ‘manifesto’ not a cookbook. As if she were the type to wander down to the local dairy and pick up a fresh pail of milk for our muesli every morning. Katie called it ‘The Wanker Manifesto’.
Mum is no longer that person. She is like a husk from the organic buckwheat pancakes she doesn’t make anymore. She sleeps for large slabs of the day and I am not exaggerating when I say she hasn’t left the house since Katie’s funeral. That was almost a year ago.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist