Friday, June 13, 2008

Children’s Books: Ironbark By Barry Jonsberg

Ironbark is Barry Jonsberg’s fourth novel. His first two, The Whole Trouble With Kiffo and the Pitbull and It’s not all about YOU, Calma! were set in Darwin, Australia, where he lives, and were centred around the life and crazy troubles of intelligent, smart-alec teenager Calma. Both books were laugh-out-loud funny, with suddenly shocking endings that weren’t funny at all, but they worked. In Dreamrider, the laughs stopped altogether. It was grim, but there was a twist at the end that readers had come to expect from a Jonsberg novel.

Ironbark also features a disturbed protagonist, though no sudden shock ending, this time. The young narrator, whose name we never discover, has a major problem. He suffers from something called IED -- Intermittent Explosive Disorder -- which means that every so often, he is subject to bouts of rage, during which he simply blanks out. When he wakes, he finds himself in the middle of a trail of destruction and, sometimes, injured people, with no memory of how it happened.

He’s been desperately trying to control his inner beast, terrified that sooner or later he’s going to kill someone -- maybe someone he cares about. After an explosion in a fast food joint in Melbourne, his wealthy father has paid for a psychiatric assessment of his condition, persuading the court that this is a medical disorder, not plain hooliganism. The hero knows that if he’d been poor, he wouldn’t have been spared prison.

As it is, he is put on probation, on condition that he spends time in Tasmania with his grandfather, who lives out in the bush. Presumably out there the young IED sufferer won’t have anything to smash, except maybe some trees. He is to keep a journal -- through which we gradually learn what happened -- and he is to report to the local policeman.

Despite the hero’s city-boy attitude, he and his grandfather soon bond and it turns out the hero enjoys cooking and loves to offer his grandfather new taste sensations. Unfortunately, the policeman, Richie, has decided to make the “hooligan’s” life miserable, harassing him every chance he gets and as the boy has thrown out his medication, it’s only a matter of time before he suffers an explosion. Trying to control his rage is an important part of finding himself.

Jonsberg’s books are always worth waiting for. A teacher himself, he has plenty of connection with teenagers and knows how they think. His language is usually right for the kind of people his characters are supposed to be. Calma uses a lot of long words, but she’s an intellectual. The hero of this book speaks in simpler language. Perhaps a few too many “yo”s and “dudes” but maybe Jonsberg’s students speak like that.

I do have a few nitpicks, though. The ending is sudden -- literally a cliffhanger -- though it is positive. However, there are a number of unanswered questions. For example, who sent the mysterious text message that saved the boy when he was lost, early in the novel? It’s implied, near the end, that it was Richie. Trouble is, he hasn’t actually met Richie when the message arrives and there is no cell phone signal where he sees it. And why is the man following him around in the bush anyway?

Still, it’s a good story, which should appeal to teenage boys.

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