First published back in December of 2011, ‘Rocks In The Belly’ formed British-Australian author Jon Bauer’s debut novel, which later went on to win the 2011 Indie Award for Best Debut Fiction.

DLS Synopsis:
His parents were good parents.  And so, like his mother always told him, that is why they were able to help out other mothers and fathers who were having a tougher time with life.  And so that’s why they were always fostering kids.  Always boys and always with issues.

The arrival of the new boy – twelve-year-old Robert was no exception to this.  But Robert was getting too cosy with his family.  Suddenly he was being allowed to sit up front in the car, at the ‘business end’ because he was deemed old enough.  And all of a sudden his mother seemed happier than she had been in years when she was with this new foster boy – Robert.

For an eight-year-old boy, it’s hard to understand.  It’s hard to accept that his own parents are able to care for and love someone else – even if this new boy’s not their real son like he is.  But it antagonises the snake in his belly.  Robert being Robert makes him want to do things.  Things that he hopes will take the attention away from Robert.  Or things that will get Robert into trouble.  Hopefully make his mother dislike him.  Or things that will get him their attention.  Things like putting his hand into the fire for as long as he can.  And so now he has to see the psychologist, Mr Gale, about his scarred for life hand.

But that’s nothing compared to what happened to Robert.

However, now some twenty years later and he’s returned to his childhood home in Australia to see his mother.  But his mother’s no longer the woman that he knew before he ran away to Canada.  The malignant cancer on her brain has withered away the once strong and domineering woman.  Now, with the steroids ballooning her, she can barely look after herself.  And there’s only so much the visiting nurse, Vicky, can do for her.  It’s perhaps time to reassess the situation.

But there’s still that lingering guilt at the back of his mind.  Back in his childhood home, he’s faced with the memories of an upbringing that he played a particular hand in destroying.  And his mother knows it.  Deep down, they all knew it.  Even his father.  But when you’re eight-years-old and feeling jealous and neglected, it’s surprising how much damage you can cause just by being you...

DLS Review:
Written in the first-person-perspective of the book’s unnamed narrator, the novel is split into two distinct time-periods which alternate chapter-by-chapter – the first being when the narrator is an eight-year-old-boy and the second being when he is twenty-eight and returning to his childhood home in Australia.

And from first setting out upon this young boy’s account of his life you find yourself instantly immersed within the narrator’s wonderfully convincing voice.  A voice that portrays a deeply troubled and insecure young eight-year-old boy, who because of his mother’s need for fostering, has led to our emotionally damaged narrator desperately seeking attention, reassurance and approval.

And so what follows is a gradual escalation of actions brought against the new foster boy into their home – Robert – which ultimately culminates into a terrible accident.  Well...if you can call it an accident that is?!  However, this self-destructive spiral of anger and revenge is delivered purely through the eyes of our likeably naive instigator.  And it’s often a hard pill to swallow.  With such a witty and jovial young boy being the root and cause of almost all of the family’s escalating agony.

Although somewhat disturbing in the cruelty of his actions, the narration is nevertheless often incredibly amusing – with the world seen through the eyes of this eccentric and imaginatively creative young boy; with everything portrayed in such a delightfully mischievous and colourful manner.  Furthermore, his father is like so many real-life father’s, always with a witty family-in-joke, comical reference, or a play-on-words about something-or-other.  Terms and phrases that our young narrator adopts for himself and which he more often than not tries to draw some sense of understanding about the real world from.  All of which only further distorts the amusingly childlike perspective of the world and all the inherent mysterious complexities that an eight-year-old boy has.

The narrator certainly displays an interesting spectrum of psychological issues – most (if not all) that are deemed to stem from his mother
s need to bring into their home a never-ending stream of boys to foster.  The repercussions of this are dramatic and extreme – with the narrator’s jealous reactions snowballing as he gets away with more and more.  Indeed, in a similar (but far more toned down) way to Iain Bank’s ‘The Wasp Factory’ (1984), ‘Rocks In The Belly’ can become quite an uncomfortable read at times – with the endearing naivety of the narrator conflicting with his quite often cruel and distasteful actions or thoughts.

The alternating chapters, from when the narrator is a twenty-eight-year-old returning to see his dying mother, are less engaging but nevertheless have their own challenging and unsettling layers.  Now a volatile young adult, our narrator maintains many of his early childhood characteristics which have developed and evolved over the years to bring out what would no doubt be described as a likeable quirkiness.  In a similar fashion to J.D. Salinger’s ‘The Catcher In the Rye’ (1951) or indeed Kaaron Warren’s ‘Slights’ (2009), our narrator displays such an unusually abstract vision of the world, interacting completely out of kilter with everyone else, that again it’s hard not to be drawn into the whole captivating mess.

Although not exactly a coming-of-age story, the tale does show our narrator gradually learning that his actions cause consequences.  Often permanent and painfully dire consequences that will affect the lives of those around him forever.  And, after we witness how things can build and build until something eventually gives way and breaks down, the novel comes careering to an emotionally heavy ending that is not only weighed down in utter tragedy, but also speaks from a very human and deeply moving place.

And so it’s with a heartfelt sigh that the novel comes to an end and the reader is left wondering about the narrator and what awaits him and the rest of his life.  After all, the novel is only two fragments of an entire (however fictitious) life, and one that is as colourful as it is tragic.  And it’s ultimately a life that captivates the reader with the twists and developments of this young, impressionable and deeply insecure mind.

The book runs for a total of 292 pages.

© DLS Reviews

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