Sonya Hartnett is an award-winning Australian novelist who creates stories that look innocent on the outskirts, but always seem to reveal a deeper meaning. In the same way that Australian horror movies always seem to be set in the outback or in a country town, population 1000, Hartnett’s novels seem always to be a tad sinister, with a placid, country town as its backdrop.

Surrender follows the life of Anwell, seven, a lonely boy who lives in a prestigious but cold family; his mother is frequently sick and distant, his father is unsympathetic and cruel. After a horrifying incident two years previously, Anwell has been kept on a very tight leash – he has no friends, he isn’t allowed to leave his yard, and all the children at school bully him for being part of an odd, elitist family.

One day Anwell makes friend with Finnigan, a rogue boy who appears to run wild in the bush lands surrounding the small country town. One day he promises Anwell to ‘do only good’ and go by the name of Gabriel, while he will make sure to do only bad.

After the town is ravished by fires caused by an arsonist, Anwell soon learns how volatile and unstable Finnigan truly is. And when things at home go from bad to worse with the inclusion of an errant family dog, Surrender, Anwell learns that loneliness and despair can lead to terrible consequences.

If you’ve ever seen or read Fight Club, aspects of this plot may sound familiar to you: Finnigan is the alter-ego of Anwell. Anwell is made up of two personalities: Gabriel, who wants badly to please his strict parents, and Finnigan, a boy who has been so scarred by his upbringing, he wants to ravage and destroy the town that has led to his misery.

Surrender is set in present day – Anwell is slowly dying of a terrible disease – but it largely relies on flashbacks from when Anwell first meets Gabriel. Hartnett clearly knew what she was doing – this way of telling the story only heightens the suspense and the growing belief that something terrible has happened and it’s soon to be revealed.

When I was reading this book, a man from the writers festival (where I’m currently volunteering – yay for books!) commented on it that it almost has a horror feel about it, and I completely agree. At first, Surrender simply comes across as a novel about an unhappy boy in a country town, having to deal with everyone knowing your entire family’s business (coming from a country town myself, I can relate). Yet as the plot unfolds, it becomes more apparent that there is something deeply wrong with Anwell, and that while we’re seeing things from his perspective, it’s clear that what we’re being shown isn’t the reality.

The other outstanding part of Surrender is how well Hartnett depicts what can happen when someone is lonely and completely deprived of love. Not only does Anwell have to deal with the grief and guilt of something he did when he was only five, but he is surrounded by family members, people who are meant to care for him, who are trying desperately to distance themselves from him, largely because of the shame they feel towards themselves.

Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender isn’t light reading by any stretch of the imagination, in fact, it disturbed me so much that the next time I want to the bookstore I struggled to find anything to read, desperate to make sure I picked something up that didn’t involve death, despair or derailment. (For the record, the next book I chose ended up having all three.) But it is also an engrossing read that reveals, piece by piece, the extraordinary depth of the characters that Hartnett has created. Will it give you nightmares? Perhaps. But like all good thrillers, you’ll enjoy the ride right until the last page.

 

Have you read Surrender? Have you read any books by Sonya Hartnett? Are you a fan of thriller books? Let me know!

surrender by sonya hartnett

Surrender – (image taken from http://www.sonyahartnett.com.au)

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