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by Michael Cart (Editor)
HarperTempest, 2003
Review by Tony O'Brien on Mar 5th 2004

Necessary Noise

The trouble with this book is that it's like childhood. The good bits are so good you want them to last forever and the whole thing is over to too fast. Necessary Noise is an edited collection of ten stories and poems about childhood and family life. The editor, Michael Cart, provides an overview of the modern family in his introduction and observes that the term has 'family' has come to assume a bewildering variety of forms. This variety is reflected in the stories and poems of Necessary Noise. There are nuclear, extended, reconstituted and single parent families. Some are close, others distant, some disintegrating, others stifled by closeness that threatens to destroy their individual members. The stories are told through the eyes of children, but 'children' here extends from pre-teens to young adults. In each case the focus is on the family unit and the relationships between siblings, and between children and parents.

It's hard to pick out a highlight from this collection. There are some stand-out stories that are dramatically tense and emotionally poignant. In Rita Williams-Garcia's A Woman's Touch, an adolescent boy's anger at his mother's lesbian partner finds expression in boxing, and there is a message that trust and acceptance can overcome the loss caused by the absence of a father. Joyce Carol Thomas shows the unravelling life of Champ, a young man with schizophrenia, through a touching series of letters between Champ and his mother. We experience Champ's terror at the tigers that morph from his bedside lamp, his mother's desperation at his disintegration, his sense of abandonment as she attempts to protect him by admitting him hospital. The resignation that attends Champ's newfound stability is not a reluctant acceptance of a lesser person, but pride in the achievement represented by an ordinary life. Hardware is a warm and satisfying story of a family that finds strength in hard times, and of the unifying power of a common adversary. In Visit, Walter Dean Myers uses the unlikely but convincing scenario of a death row reconciliation to explore the relationship between father and son. The result is truly touching; the ending a haunting vision of a young man who, although aware of his moral lapses, has gained an honesty available, perhaps, only to those facing their own immanent death. The living retain the power of self-deceit. Can a sister be as horrible as Sasha is to Lucy in Sonya Sones' poem Dr Jekyll and Sister Hyde? Apparently so. Despite all, Lucy is forgiving. The Greek chorus feeling at the end, however, suggests that Lucy's generosity might not be enough.

In a sparkling anthology an individual story can suffer by comparison. For me the reporting style in parts of Michael Cart's Sailing Away detracted from what was otherwise a warm and engaging story of affection between growing boys. And I found the sudden and complete reversal with which Evelyn, in Lois Lowry's Snowbound renounced both vegetarianism and her boyfriend, while it was well signalled, a little hard to credit. It might be that the characters were too sharply drawn to begin with.   

 The authors of Necessary Noise are mostly American, the one exception being Irish writer Emma Donoghue who lives in Canada. All have published novels or collections; many have won awards for their work. Each contribution is distinctive, making pithy and provocative observations about the world of children and families. The collection would appeal to teens and young adults, as well as to a general readership. A recommended read.


© 2004 Tony O'Brien


Tony O'Brien, Lecturer, Mental Health Nursing, University of Auckland