Surrender by Sonya Hartnett

Gabriel is 20 years old, and he is dying. Attended only by his Aunt Sarah, he lies in his childhood room immobile and subject to the dispiriting betrayals of a body he no longer controls. He describes his unnamed illness as a “squalling usurper” and remarks, with a shard of black humor, that it makes even drawing breath an “undertaking”. Outside Gabriel’s window is the small Australian town of Mulyan. There is nothing about the ‘weft and fold’ of the town, says Gabriel, that isn’t familiar to him. Indeed, he can imagine the townsfolk, their respectful hush and the words they whisper: “It won’t be long now. They say he is dying.”

Australian author Sonya Hartnett splits Surrender down the middle, alternating the first-person narration of Gabriel with that of his childhood friend Finnigan, who still prowls the countryside, as elemental and ruthless as an old god. While Gabriel lies imprisoned in his bed, Finnigan watches as bones are discovered in an old grave on Mulyan’s outskirts, a discovery that will propel him eventually, inevitably, back to Gabriel. The interweaving of Gabriel and Finnigan, and past and present, unleashes complex contrapuntal forces in Surrender. Fortunately, Hartnett, until recently, best known as the author of young-adult fiction, is in full command of her material, demonstrating a delicate touch and a keen eye for structure.

From his sickbed Gabriel, succumbing breath by breath to his illness, remembers Finnigan, a girl called Evangeline, and his dog, Surrender, who he long ago gave to Finnigan. Most of all, Gabriel remembers the chilly, loveless household in which he grew up. The father he describes is domineering and severe, his mother cold and querulous — her stunting self-pity and malevolence recalling Mrs. Compson in Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Gabriel remembers his brother too.

Gabriel’s older brother, Vernon, is intellectually handicapped. To his parents, Vernon is an unmerited rebuke. They regard him with shame and disgust, keeping him in a back room where no one can hear his wailing, and only allowing him in the backyard because there no one can see him. So miserable is Vernon’s existence that seven-year-old Gabriel — brimming with selfishness, but with fierce empathy too — tells his uncomprehending brother: “You should die. You will be safer if you die. You might be happier.”

And Vernon does die. One day seven-year-old Gabriel is left to care for his brother. The anger, frustration, sadness, and disgust — all the things to which his parents aren’t equal — are visited on Gabriel. Unable to cope with Vernon, and terrified of waking his ill mother, Gabriel shuts his tearful and wailing brother in a disused refrigerator, suffocating him.

Years later, Gabriel meets Finnigan, a wild, unkempt boy who doesn’t go to school and lives in the hills beyond town. When Finnigan asks him about it, Gabriel protests: “I was only seven. You don’t know any better, when you’re only seven.” When Finnigan concedes that Gabriel’s parents “should have been looking after him, not you,” Gabriel thinks that “it is good to have a friend who thinks the same as you.” Finnigan’s friendship is important to Gabriel. Because his parents are widely disliked by the townsfolk, Gabriel is tormented by his schoolmates. The only friends he has is Finnigan.

In one of their first meetings, the boys, at Finnigan’s instigation, strike a bargain. Finnigan makes Gabriel swear not to do “bad things,” and says, “I’ll do the bad things for you. Then you won’t have to. You can just do good things.” Gabriel senses the wrongness of this: “There was something soul-selling about it.” He realises that in giving up his right to do wrong he “forfeited great chunks of free will”. This is his “surrender”.

Gabriel’s misgivings prove justified because not long after the bargain is struck the town is menaced by an arsonist — hedges, buildings, cars, and forests are set alight, stirring the townsfolk into a storm of impotent rage and vigilanteism. Bound by his friendship and the promises he made, Gabriel doesn’t reveal his suspicion that the firebug is Finnigan. This won’t be the last time that their friendship is tested.

The beauty and difficulty of Surrender, and what will make one read it a second time, are that so many things are only glimpsed at the first reading. This is a novel that will leave readers interrogating its white spaces and listening for the subtext that whispers between its lines. The reversals in the novel’s second half won’t surprise the alert reader. Is there one reversal too many? Does Hartnett elaborate when obliqueness would have served her better? Perhaps, and perhaps again. But these are churlish criticisms, picking at loose threads while missing the glory of the garment.

Surrender is a dark and troubling story, written in prose of great beauty. It’s a story about failed bargains and lovelessness. About surrogacy. About guilt, fury, sorrow, loneliness, and desolation always being expressed at one remove, by proxy. Surely, near the story’s end, only the hard-hearted will remain unmoved when the boy who has so little loses everything.