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Lost and Found by Brooke DavisTake the whimsy of Inga Simpson’s Mr Wigg (my review here) and multiply it, then add the quirky-character humour of Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project (read, not reviewed here), and you’ve got Lost and Found by debut Australian author Brooke Davis. Exploring the theme of grief and how we deal with it, the story is a romp, told from three perspectives—the young Millie Bird, and the elderly Karl the Touch Typist and Agatha Pantha.

Wearing her favourite red gumboots, red-haired Millie is seven years old and struggling to understand the death of her father when her mother abandons her in a department store. Millie writes all the dead things she sees in her Book of Dead Things. Her dog Rambo is #1 in the book; her father is #28. Like some young children, she is kept away from her dad’s funeral, and is confused about where he has gone.

One of the things she struggles with, and another theme of the novel, is the way adults talk down to her. She asks a lot of questions, as children are apt to do, and the answers she gets are often misleading. In one very humorous exchange with her father when discussing the demise of Rambo, which spills into a discussion about what happens to people after they die, her father talks about Heaven and Hell thus:

In Heaven, you hang out with God and Jimi Hendrix, and you get to eat doughnuts whenever you want. In Hell, you have to, uh … do the Macarena. Forever. To that ‘Grease Megamix’.

Where do you go if you’re good and bad?

What? I don’t know. Ikea?

Millie is a wonderful character. She creates delightful ‘secret’ poems made from snatches of overheard conversation. She lists ‘facts about the world Millie knows for sure’. One of these is ‘everyone knows everything about being born, but no one knows anything about being dead.’  In one scene, she visits a cemetery and realises there are different heavens for different (religious) groups of people and worries she might not go to the same heaven as her dad when she dies. Her habit of telling people they’re going to die doesn’t go over well with most, and culminates in a hilarious announcement she makes over a train’s PA system.

Millie somehow manages to stay overnight in the department store without anyone noticing, except, that is, for Karl who is also sleeping there after leaving the old persons’ home his daughter-in-law effectively put him in. Millie meets Karl in the department store café. Karl is 87, and is missing his late wife, Evie. Karl is particular. He’s in the habit of typing out everything he says with his fingers (he met Evie in a touch-typing school). There are some lovely moments in Karl’s story where he remembers the time he had with his wife before she died of cancer. The way he had proposed to her is wonderful.

Millie still hopes her mum is coming back to get her, and everywhere she goes she puts up a sign, saying ‘In here, Mum’ (which you might see in bookstore windows promoting Davis’s novel). After two nights in the store, Millie and Karl are discovered. Karl is naturally suspected of being a paedophile, but he manages to create a diversion for Millie to escape. She runs back to her home to find her mum has disappeared. The escape scene is one of many hilarious set-pieces, some of which might stretch plausibility but are fabulously entertaining nonetheless. On their break, Millie asks Karl to steal a mannequin, which he subsequently names Manny.

Millie’s return home is noticed by Agatha Pantha, who lives across the street. Agatha has not left her house in seven years, shutting down after the death of her husband, Ron. If Karl is particular, then Agatha is a force of nature, always yelling her displeasure at her perceived failings or shortcomings of people passing by her house. Like Millie, she has her own book to record her ageing, including her flabby arms and other bodily measurements she makes daily.

She has a fixed daily routine, and her chapters are almost diary entries for specific times of the day. She names the chairs she sits in. There are the Chairs of Disbelief, Degustation, Discernment, Resentment, Disappearing, Disappointment, Disengagement, and so on. (It probably would have been better if they were all named using words starting with ‘D’.) At the end of each day, at 9:23 pm, ‘Agatha allows herself to be lonely.’  Davis walks a fine line with Agatha, because she’s not very likeable at first glance, but her personality quirks come from her bewilderment of what life has become. Her loneliness is heart-breaking.

Agatha is aghast when Millie walks up her garden path and asks her to make sense of a piece of paper she has found, which is an itinerary of her mother’s ‘runner’ to the USA via Melbourne (the story begins in south-western Australia). Agatha then tells Millie to go away, but she eventually marches across the street to Millie’s house and tells her to pack her bags because they are going to find her mum.

Thus begins a road trip like few others, with Karl, who has escaped arrest, catching up with Millie and Agatha, bringing with him Manny the mannequin (who I love… #teammanny!). The trio, or should I say foursome!, rub against each other in funny and moving ways as they stay on the run from the authorities and others. Millie’s conversation with Agatha, when she asks if she can start a new family, is a hoot, as the increasingly exasperated Agatha tries to explain that she is too young to start a family and the biological reasons for this and how it all involves the government.

Do things get a little over-the-top? Maybe for some they will, but I enjoyed the majority of the climactic scenes. Millie, Karl and Agatha all transform in satisfying ways, and there is a well-balanced ending, including a nice pay-off from Evie’s puzzled message for Karl that he finally decodes. Out of the grief each of these characters suffer at the open comes a life-affirming message: that while death catches up with us all in the end, until it does we can change in ways that will surprise, perhaps shock, us, and live life to the absolute fullest. If there is a fault, for me some aspects of the relationship between Karl and Agatha strain credibility in an otherwise assured debut.

awwbadge_2014Lost & Found will win many hearts. Like The Rosie Project, it has been sold into multiple countries and will find many readers. Where does Davis go from here? More whimsy? More humour? Many readers will hope for precisely that.

Brooke Davis has followed in the footsteps of Hannah Kent with a profile on the ABC’s Australian Story titled ‘Driving Miss Davis’, which you may still be able to catch on i-view or on the Australian Story website. She talks about the loss of her mother in a tragic accident, the way people respond to grief, and her rather special relationship with her mother’s old car.

Davis is discussing Lost & Found at Berkelouw Books in Leichhardt with Susan Wyndham this coming Wednesday (16 July) evening. It’s ticketed, so call ahead.

Lost & Found by Brooke Davis

2014

Hachette

263 pages

ISBN: 9780733632754

Source: review copy provided by the publisher

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Mr Wigg by Inga SimpsonConfession time… I have a thing for pears. And so while I’ve read many fabulous Aussie debut novels over Christmas, such as Graeme Simsion’s chuckle fest The Rosie Project, Hannah Kent’s finely wrought Burial Rites, and Courtney Collins’s captivating gothic work The Burial, I thought I’d skip reviewing these given the weight of press each has received, and write up some thoughts on the charming Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson. This is in part because Mr Wigg has a thing for pears too, although he also has a fancy for, let me see, just about every kind of fruiting tree you can think of, from apricots to nectarines, from persimmons to quinces. His speciality, though, is peaches.

Set in 1971, the story is split into the four seasons, starting with summer. The narrative voice has a whimsical storybook quality to it, partly because Mr Wigg is always referred to as ‘Mr Wigg’, and partly because he tells his grandchildren Lachlan and Fiona a fable about the mythical Peach King while the three of them bake, which, it has to be said, is often. I must admit, the voice took a bit of getting used to. Like its country setting, the story comes to you slowly, simply. But once I got used to the rhythm, it seemed perfect to me. It’s a bit like us city folk needing to adjust to a rural pace whenever we get out of the big smoke.

The whimsy comes in the form of the fruit trees, who talk to Mr Wigg and each other. Here’s some of the pears in action:

The pears had always been sensitive during spring, as they were not self-fertile, like the others, but required cross pollination. ‘It’s no laughing matter,’ Bon Chrétien muttered. Bickering like a long-married couple most of the year, the pears began dipping their branches at each other in early September. Beurré Bosc recited sonnets in that particular tone and Bon Chrétien responded with made up songs about the qualities of pear blossom.

Mr Wigg has his challenges. He lost his wife to cancer the previous year and is still coming to terms with the loss. His son wants him to consider moving into a old person’s home in town. And Mr Wigg is estranged from his daughter after a falling out over an inheritance. He knows he’s getting on, but he’s determined to die in his own home. He thus fights for his independence. To prove he’s not past it, in between baking sessions with the grandkids he takes on a creative project, firing up the forge in the shed with touching results that bring together Mr Wigg’s Peach King tale and his own life story. The ending is pitch-perfect.

Mr Wigg is a little gem. A story with heart. Reading it awwbadge_2014makes you want to plant an orchard, preserve some fruit, and get baking while the cricket is playing on the radio (Mr Wigg would be very proud of our Aussie boys thrashing the poms in the Ashes these past weeks!). It makes you thankful for the little things, the slow things, the moments between you and those you love. And being reminded of these things is never a bad thing.

To top it all off, I even learned a few new things about pears!

Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson

2013

Hachette

292 pages

ISBN: 9780733630194

Source: the bookshelf rainbow (aka purchased)

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