Mark Brandi’s debut Wimmera was one of my favourite crime novels of 2017, and while Brandi’s new book The Rip (Hachette Australia Books 2019) in many ways (particularly setting) couldn’t be more different, what it has in common with Wimmera is the unique voice and perspective of its young protagonist, and a simple plot that takes us forward step by step with a sense of creeping menace and dread.
The Rip is set in gritty inner-city Melbourne and opens with a short prologue: a record of an interview between a police detective and a ‘person of interest’. This short section doesn’t give a lot away, but it does reveal that a search of the rather evasive suspect’s room has found a foul-smelling chemical, and that police inquiries into CCTV footage are proceeding. This sets up the first chapter, in which we meet our unnamed 17-year-old female narrator (a point I found particularly interesting as I didn’t realise until sitting down to write this review that I didn’t know her name). She and her best friend Anton, along with their dog, Sunny, are homeless. They live in a permanent spot in a city park and occasionally seek meals or shelter from the Salvos and other charity groups. The backstory of each of their lives leading to this circumstance is bleak: the girl has lived in a succession of mostly unsatisfactory foster homes; Anton has spent time in gaol. And both are addicted to drugs, the girl hooked on ‘the gear’ (referred to as ‘it’ throughout the book, almost as if it is a character) while Anton takes prescription pain medication. On one level, their lives are – as you would suspect – difficult, dangerous and depressing: they steal toothbrushes from Aldi; supplement their irregular Salvos’ showers with quick clean-ups in the local public toilets; scrounge discarded food from the rubbish bins behind bakeries or fast food outlets. They get wet when it rains. If they leave their possessions alone for more than a couple of days, their belongings will be stolen. They have yellow teeth and unwashed clothes. Like all responsible pet-owners, they prioritise taking care of Sunny, but this restricts their movement and accommodation options. And they are always on the look-out for their next fix. Always planning how to beg, borrow, steal or sometimes earn enough money to cover the next baggie of drugs.
But there is another side to this dreary portrait, and it is Brandi’s simple and authentic language and his engaging characterisation that save this from being yet another addiction story. The girl is feisty, persistent and clever. Anton is intelligent, caring and hopeful. Together, the dynamic between them is one of loyalty, kindness and of a friendship forged by shared traumatic experiences, a familiar history, and a united desire to live by a certain moral code. They have standards and while these may not be the standards common to the average middle-class person, they are standards which are important to them, and which they strive to achieve. Even with our girl sometimes having to ‘turn tricks’ to make ends meet, she has firm ideas about what she will do and who she will do it with. And Anton’s protectiveness of her is endearingly sweet. Their desire to hold on to their dignity however they can, despite their circumstances, is empowering rather than depressing.
So it all becomes quite grim when the two meet up with one of Anton’s old friends, Steve, who invites them back to stay in his flat for a while. He and Anton get up to some dodgy behaviour, Steve’s flatmate Mary has apparently been locked in the psych ward, and behind Steve’s locked bedroom door there is a mysterious chemical smell. Our protagonist is suspicious and wary of Steve from the start, and when Anton goes missing, she is frightened and unsure where to turn. But by that stage, she is more firmly hooked on drugs than she has been for ages, and ‘it’ clouds her judgment and fogs her brain. When she takes a hit, all she can think about is how she can score the next one.
The rip of the title is an ocean reference about how taking drugs is ‘like walking out into the sea, and you think everything’s fine and the water’s warm, but when you turn back you’re suddenly miles from shore … like, being caught in a current or something. A rip.’ And the undercurrent rips are a constant threat in this book. The insecurity of basic needs like adequate shelter and enough food, the judgment of others, the risk to personal safety, the loss of companionship and family, the ever-present chance of being assaulted, raped or robbed. The relentless cycle of poverty, abuse, homelessness and drug use.
The Rip is a crime story, and the details of the crimes – what they are, how they’ve been committed, and who is involved – are intriguing and propel the narrative forward. But the real strength of this novel is in the characters. We become fully immersed in the lives of Anton and our protagonist. Obviously, unless – as readers – we have lived experience, it is difficult to fully comprehend the circumstances of this story. But Mark Brandi is such a fine writer that through his words we can imagine our way into the lives of others and empathise with their situation.