By Demet DivarorenYoung Adult Allen & Unwin
Living on Hope Street
We all love someone. We all fear something. Sometimes they live right next door – or even closer.
Kane will do everything he can to save his mother and his little brother Sam from the violence of his father, even if it means becoming a monster himself.
Mrs Aslan will protect the boys no matter what – even though her own family is in pieces.
Ada wants a family she can count on, while she faces new questions about herself.
Mr Bailey is afraid of the refugees next door, but his worst fear will take another form.
And Gugulethu is just trying to make a life away from terror.
On this street, everyone comes from different places, but to find peace they will have to discover what unites them.
A deeply moving, unflinching portrait of modern Australian suburban life.
Living on Hope Street is a glimpse of modern-day Australia through the lens of a single street and the families that make their lives along it.
There’s Angie, Kane, and Sam who live in the shadow of Angie’s abusive husband; next door Mrs Aslan cares for Sam and Kane when their mother is in hospital, and pines for her estranged daughter and granddaughter. Ada, Mrs Aslan’s granddaughter, runs away from her controlling mother and comes to stay on the street that is so different from her own. Gugulethu and her family have just arrived from an African refugee camp; and their next-door neighbour, Mr Bailey, is afraid of the ethnic ‘invaders’ on his street.
The individual voices of each character ring original and authentic, and the switching between perspectives flows easily and without jarring.
In Living on Hope Street we are presented a rarer-seen perspective of the YA form, that of the working class, the strugglers, and the newly arrived. Our characters don’t have much, but their generosity of spirit rings pure and strong.
Gugulethu and her family make the best of what little they have, and embrace their new country while never losing sight of where they come from. Mr Bailey, whose xenophobic views could paint him as a pure villain, is rendered instead as a nuanced character. His thought processes are explained but never excused. Mrs Aslan, whose language is presented as spoken, is never the subject of ridicule – her love and care comes through her broken English.
Family violence is a centrepiece of Living on Hope Street, an ominous threat that runs beneath the story, driving it to the shocking but all-too-familiar conclusion. Through the narrative we see not only the effects of men’s violence against women on the sweet but troubled boy Sam, but also the process of intergenerational violence – the threads of viciousness spreading to his brother Kane, the way that a victim could become a perpetrator without intervention.
Living on Hope Street is a rare book – at times shocking, at others sweet, but consistently powerful, relevant, and beautifully rendered.
We walked onto Mrs Aslan’s porch single file, the DHS woman shadowing me up the steps. Mrs Aslan took off her blue runners and left them at the front door. She’d trampled the backs of them so they looked more like the slippers she made us wear in the house. The DHS woman tried to overtake and follow Mrs Aslan inside but I blocked the door while I took off my shoes. Every second that Sam didn’t see her was a win.
‘Excuse me, Kane,’ she said, squeezing past me. I followed her down the hall. She stopped near the dining table in the lounge room, sniffing the air like a hound. Mrs Aslan’s house smelled like fried garlic and the woman tracked the smell towards the kitchen door behind her. She surveyed the lounge room, her eyes darting up and down like Mrs Archer’s did when she stalked the school halls waiting to break some balls.
Mrs Aslan was sitting on the couch next to Sam. ‘You orayt, my Sam,’ she said, kissing the top of his head. ‘No one gonna hurt you.’ She turned the TV on and crouched in front of the DVD player, flipping through discs. ‘You sit, watch Ninja Turtle, I gonna make you honey milk soon.’
The Ninja Turtles theme song blasted through the speakers. Mrs Aslan stood in front of the woman and eyeballed her heels, which were stabbing the carpet. ‘Here,’ she said, taking off her red slippers and putting them at the woman’s feet.
‘This be more comfortable.’
‘Ah, yes, sorry,’ the woman muttered, taking off her shoes and handing them to Mrs Aslan, who disappeared down the hall. ‘My brother loves the Ninja Turtles too, Sam,’ she said.
‘He always tells Mum to make pizza. It’s all he eats.’
Sam sat up and peeked from the couch. ‘It’s all good, buddy, she’s going soon,’ I said, winking. His wet eyes shone. Sauce was smeared on his cheek. I remembered his scared face as Dad pushed mashed potato into it and pulsed my fists to control my hands. The woman’s pen was scratching the paper like her life depended on it. Except it wasn’t her life but ours she could be changing.
Mrs Aslan shuffled back to the lounge room, her arms open. ‘This my house, you see is very clean, very safe.’
‘Yes, it really is,’ the woman said. ‘Does anyone else live here with you?’
Mrs Aslan shook her head and adjusted her headscarf, squeezing the ties under her chin.
‘She lives alone,’ I said. Why the hell didn’t she just check her folder and piss off? ‘DHS has all of the answers from last time. Why are you still here?’
She straightened. ‘Kane, it’s my job to make sure you and your brother are well looked after. I’m not here to make things difficult, I promise you.’
‘Tamam, okay, hadi, you ask questions, look my house. These boys very tired, need sleep.’
‘Kane?’ Sam’s voice wobbled.
‘It’s okay, bud.’
‘Everything orayt, my Sam. I promise. This woman she love my house, I give her tour.’ Mrs Aslan waved the woman into the kitchen. ‘What you want to see? Hmm? This where I make food.’ Her hands fanned out as if she’d dealt cards.
‘You want see what food I make? This I feed to boys.’
‘No, that’s not necessary.’
Mrs Aslan lifted the lid off an orange pot on the stove.
‘This soup mercimek, it made from small, orange thing. What this called, Kane?’
‘Lentils,’ I said.
‘Yes, it be medicine for every pain.’ She opened the lid of another pot. ‘And this makarna, with meat. Sam love spaghetti.’
‘Smells good,’ the woman said, smiling. ‘It’s similar to Mum’s bolognese.’
‘Of course smell good!’ Mrs Aslan slapped her chest.
‘I make this! I give you recipe? Is very easy. First you fry meat, put tomato, onion, garlic and salça.’
The woman’s smile lingered as Mrs Aslan kept talking, but it was stretched like a rubber band about to snap. Like Dad’s smile minutes before he saw red and started on Mum.
Tonight was worse than last time. Mum’s nose was definitely broken but it was the kicks she copped to her stomach that scared me. What if he broke her ribs?
‘Can I see where the boys will be sleeping, Mrs Aslan?’
‘Tsk. Tövbe, tövbe,’ she said, looking up at the ceiling.
‘They sleep inside bed, where else I put them? Come, I show you.’
The woman followed Mrs Aslan into the lounge room, past the Ninja Turtles, who were facing off with some gang in an alley. Sam’s chin was resting on a red cushion. ‘She smells,’ I whispered to him, as the woman walked into a bedroom. I waved a hand in front of my nose. ‘She’s checking to see if the bed is special enough for a ninja like you, buddy.’
Sam buried his face deeper into the cushion. ‘I want Mum,’ he said. ‘Where’s Mum, Kane?’
‘Shh, bud.’ I ruffled his hair. ‘Mum’s okay. She’s coming home soon, I promise.’ I’d make sure of it as soon as DHS pissed off.
I found the woman in the spare bedroom inspecting the wooden bedpost that was covered with stickers. The walls still had ’80s posters of Michael Jackson and Bon Jovi.
Mrs Aslan was staring at the photo of her daughter on the bedside table. ‘This where I sleep. Boys sleep in my bedroom. Hadi,’ she said, waving the woman out with her hand.
Mrs Aslan’s bedroom had brown frilly curtains like the ones in drama class. It smelled like mothballs and rose oil.
‘This nice big bed,’ Mrs Aslan said. ‘It so big, it fit four people.’ She wriggled four chunky fingers in the air.
The woman was looking at the cupboards. ‘You want to check her drawers too?’ I said.
She laughed, shook her head.
‘Do you get a kick out of doing this? Butting your nose in people’s business?’
Her nails were like claws. I knew what those claws felt like around my hand, how strong they were when they were taking me away. There was no way in hell Sam would feel them too.
‘Kane, I’m here to make things easier. I know how hard this must be for you—’
‘You don’t know shit, okay? We don’t need you people. Just leave.’
I was itching now; the thought of Mum in the cold hospital bed made my jaw tense. Dad would be on the loose soon, a cyclone heading straight for us.
The woman hugged her folder. ‘I need to step out briefly to make a call. Excuse me for a few minutes.’
Mrs Aslan led her out onto the porch. I sat next to Sam. I wiped the sweat off his forehead as Mrs Aslan made a racket in the kitchen.
‘I coming, Kane. I making for you both honey milk. Or you want drink tea?’
‘I’m right, thanks,’ I said. ‘Hey, bud, which turtle do you reckon kicks the most butt?’
He shrugged. I focused on Michelangelo’s goofy smile.
‘It’s only a matter of time before this bloke knocks himself out with his nunchucks.’
When the woman walked in a few minutes later, Sam was sipping his milk in Mrs Aslan’s lap.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Thank you, Mrs Aslan. This arrangement is fine for now. We will be in touch.’
She left with her folder full of new notes to use against us.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist