Greyjoyous's Reviews > South of Darkness

South of Darkness by John Marsden
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it was ok
bookshelves: reviewed

I don’t think it was possible to be a book-loving child in the 1990s/early 2000s and not know John Marsden. Not love John Marsden, even. Tomorrow, When the War Began, So Much to Tell You, Checkers, The Rabbits...

He was an instant-read for me: no matter what the book was about, I’d read it because it was Marsden.

But this. Oh dear.

Firstly, this was shelved at my library as an adult book, but he’s famous for his YA works, and the blurb made this sound like it would land firmly in YA territory too. A child/young teenager transported to Australia from London in the late 1700s, struggling to survive... YA? Adult? Even after reading it I’m not sure.

It’s told in the first person by Barnaby Fletch, a 13-year-old (for most of the book) boy living on the streets of London who runs afoul of the wrong person and decides to get himself transported to Australia to escape, and find a better life. He’s telling his story from a point somewhere in the future, looking back on the events of his youth.

I want to say Barnaby’s an interesting character, but he’s really not. He’s an observer, more than anything, with very little to say for himself or distinguish him. And that’s disappointing, because one of the advantages of a first-person viewpoint is that it puts the reader deeply inside the character’s head. Give this poor boy a personality, for God’s sake! This isn’t helped by the quite formal language adopted by future!Barnaby.

(There’s a lot of God-talk in here too, and comparing Barnaby’s sufferings with those of Job.)

I also found his temperament deeply incongruous with his supposed upbringing. He’s lived on the streets of London his whole life and yet is Shocked and Appalled, at age 12, by mentions of sex/masturbation/sodomy/pedophilia? And Shocked and Appalled by hangings and floggings? That doesn’t gel with me. I can understand him being fearful for his life and terrified of pain, but there’s an innocence and naivety that I don’t think suits his supposed life to date.

It’s like Marsden wants to make sure the reader never thinks ill of his character, like he’s missed the memo that Flawed Heroes are all the rage nowadays. Which makes no sense, because from memory none of his previous YA characters were perfect AND they call had distinct voices and personalities. Has he genuinely forgotten how to write an engaging character in the last 10 years?

(You know what I think would have suited what Marsden was going for? A middle- or upper-class child, orphaned or separated from his parents, arrested for a crime he didn’t commit and unfairly sentenced. I would have rolled my eyes at this, but Barnaby’s not much better.)

Once Barnaby lands in Australia the plot turns into unbelievable drivel, all wrapped up neatly at the end with a bow of happiness on top, BUT simultaneously, the last page is clearly the set up for a sequel.

Please, John, you’re better than this.
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Reading Progress

March 3, 2017 – Started Reading
March 5, 2017 – Shelved
March 6, 2017 – Finished Reading
May 16, 2017 – Shelved as: reviewed

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