Julianne Negri's Reviews > The Secret Son

The Secret Son by Jenny  Ackland
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really liked it
bookshelves: aww-challenge

I was born in Beechworth, with the sister above me called “Kelly” - named for the local bushranger. My father would point to the hills and rocks around us and ask with fervent mischief, “What do you think kids? Do you think Ned Kelly would have hidden up there?” We felt this mysterious Ned Kelly’s presence everywhere. So I was intrigued with the premise of Jenny Ackland’s debut novel, “The Secret Son” – that Ned Kelly had a secret child. That through this child, a son, Ned lived on.

Jenny Ackland has delivered an ambitious, rich narrative with “The Secret Son.” It bristles with detailed texture, vast scope, delightful plotting and a myriad of well-drawn characters. Ackland playfully riffs on the legacy of Ned Kelly, the experience of Gallipoli and migration, giving insight into the weight of legend, the pull of myths and the power of discovering the truth in order to find identity.

One main thread to the book is the story of James. Set in early 20th century, James is unwittingly the son of Ned Kelly, already the stuff of legend for his violent standoff with the police. James is the antithesis of the idea of Ned Kelly - a gentle passive man, slightly ambivalent, who has a particular knack for understanding bees. As a young man, James’ wandering takes him from Beechworth to Melbourne, armed with some gold nuggets, a photograph of his father and his favourite book “Cole’s Funny Picture Book”. In Melbourne James actually encounters the author and eccentric entrepreneur E.W. Cole and is taken under his wing, where he falls in love with Cole’s ambitious, independent, spirited daughter, Linda. Years of this unrequited love inspire James to join up in the First World War where he ends up in Gallipoli, (trying not to kill anyone) only to be left behind. A Turkish boy soldier finds him and takes back to his village home in the mountains.

James’ thread is one of continually suspending disbelief. Could he really grow up in Beechworth and not know who his father is? Would a pacifist really join up for fighting in WW1? Would he remain with Cole and Linda for so long in Melbourne? These are just the beginning of questions. James’ determination to be a good man leads him to some interesting impasses. His determination to reject the idea of Ned Kelly seeing him only as a murdering scoundrel is never really explored in any depth but touched on at important junctures. It’s like a pivot point for James’ life.

From James’ story we move to the contemporary story of Cem (pronounced Jem), son of Turkish migrants to Australia, returning to the village of his family. Ackland describes him thus: “At twenty-three, Cem was a kind of shrug.” Cem is an aimless young man, empty of a plan for the future, with very little attachment to any one and immersed in a self-indulgent unwillingness to take responsibility for anything or anyone or for himself.

There are parallels here about wandering and connecting to myths from the past and finding truth and identity within them. Cem’s story of returning to the village his parents and grandfather are from, a village he grew up listening to a mythologised version of from his grandfather, is a strong parallel to that of James, someone who has rejected the idea of connecting to legend. Both have a story of discovery and belonging and finding the truth of themselves within a myth that touches their lives. Of finding ones true identity beyond family inheritance.

On the plane to Turkey Cem co-incidentally sits next to Harry, a drunk middle-aged professor of history on a quest to find Ned Kelly’s son, who he believes ended up in Turkey after the war – something he bases research and on a novel he has found called “The Secret Son”. All this is very coincidental but through evocative imaginings of Turkey, the village and the people, Ackland manages to avoid what could have been twee and transform it into something more for more rich and meaningful.

The other point of view we get in the book is the first person narration of Berna, old woman of the village and the abandoned Grandmother of Cem. Her first person narrative is full of insight from the fish eye lens of the village and was, for me, the strongest voice in the novel. She is the key to all the threads and holds all the answers. The evocation of Turkey - the description of the place, food and sounds - is certainly where the book is at its most compelling.
Cem’s discovery of the truth about his grandfather and the past is a strong story line and where Ackland displays her wonderful storytelling skills. It is told with clever twists and turns, well-paced changes of point of view and compelling mystery. There is so much in the story of the village, the story coming full circle with Cem’s arrival, that the plot of Kelly’s son, the mystery of his whereabouts and Harry’s quest to find him, almost isn’t needed.

However, what Ackland has cleverly done here is to launch her story into something beyond a family saga/coming of age story by referencing two of the strongest narratives in the Australian psyche, Ned Kelly and Gallipoli, using them as a foothold to jump higher and to do a bit of a double twist somersault with her novel and take it somewhere quite unexpected – all while lulling the reader into feeling surefooted with the level of detail in the descriptions. It is a way to connect Australia and Turkey in a very significant way and to give added weight to the story of migration and return. It shows Ackland’s skill as a writer but also displays a wonderful confidence in storytelling which felt delightful to indulge in.

The main male characters of Cem, Harry and James were weak and flaky but the story is weighted down with other strong well drawn characters and themes that it managed to feel solid and balanced. It is interesting to me that a female author has written a book with two (three if you include Harry) male characters who are weak, spineless and lost but the women in their lives are marvellous and strong – Berna, Linda, Halide, Jenna, and Harry’s absent wife Marlene. For Cem and James their weak traits are in a constant narrative dialogue with their ancestors and this interplay gives a great tension in what we expect from these characters and who they become.

For James, there are some audacious turns of events in his tale – the connection with E.W. Cole, the re-appearance of Linda in the story, some pivotal decisions, and the evolution of his later life - that felt completely over the top. However I delighted in the fact that the author seemed to recognise that the reader would feel this way – that instead of arrogantly railroading her narrative forward, she actually raises and addresses many of the questions. There is a part later in the book where some characters (and I won’t reveal who for the sake of no spoilers) are discussing memoir versus novel and a character says they need to novelise their story because as memoir it would be too over the top and unbelievable! This dialogue with the reader was incredibly refreshing. This assured approach by the writer actually made me overcome my misgivings.

In “The Secret Son” Ackland weaves a plush carpet of many threads. She combines heightened story telling – to the point of the absurd – with intimate details of characters life from Cem’s bowel movements to the waxing of a bride’s entire body. She draws from the well of myth and legend but maintains her story in the real stuff of lives and people. As Berna tells us “Death, truth, proof, life: it is all the same.”
In the end, the reader may have questioned character actions, quibbled at plot turns, had difficulty suspending disbelief, but in spite of all this, the expert storytelling, warmth, engagement with the reader, evocative detail and a sense of courageous plotting wins out in the end. With each thread tied up and the fringe of the carpet plaited, I found it was incredibly accomplished debut.

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Reading Progress

July 8, 2015 – Shelved
July 8, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 24, 2015 – Started Reading
August 31, 2015 – Finished Reading
October 6, 2015 – Shelved as: aww-challenge

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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Jane I loved Berna so much too - she really made the book.

Julianne Negri Yes for me too - I just loved her voice and her way of seeing things. She really was the lynchpin of all the stories - I also just loved how the story unfolded. The structure and changes of voice. I need to write a review of your book Jane "Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists" which was, quite frankly, the freakin bees knees.

Jane oh thank you...

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