Book review: Denizen, James McKenzie Watson

An award-winning, cleverly constructed debut.

Readers will be aware, if only from the cover of this book, that Denizen won the Penguin Literary Prize for 2021. They may hesitate, as I do, to buy a ‘highbrow’ work when seeking a novel to read for enjoyment. Or they may puzzle, as I do, as to what is meant by ‘literary novel’– a term I personally think we could do without.

My understanding is a literary novel is defined as a serious work that is character-driven rather than plot-driven.

Denizen is both character-and plot-driven and proves that dealing with a serious situation can still make for enjoyable reading.

It is not often I pause in reading a book because I am afraid of what comes next, but I felt compelled to pause not once but several times while reading Denizen as Parker narrates his own story, starting from childhood in a remote part of Australia to the present day, in such a uniquely involving way.

While he recounts events, not always in chronological order, he is slowly revealing more and more about himself. And just when you think you might understand him, facts emerge that may change your point of view.

Some of what Parker does may not be to your taste, but somehow he still evokes your sympathy if not entirely your approbation. No doubt being brought up on a remote farm in Western New South Wales, kilometres from a dying outback town, does not augur for a good start in Parker’s life.

Things are made worse for him by parents who don’t understand him and have their own problems; here is his mother in action:

She was quicker than I’d expected and got me four more times with the spatula before I could raise my arms. The idea that she could hurt me – seriously, fatally – was suddenly a practical reality, and I noted with detached interest that I felt not relief, but fear. She swung again, the handle connecting with the knuckles of my left hand, and when I howled in pain, she answered with a haunting, inhuman shriek.

All is not bad for Parker, though. He makes friends at school, including with a vivacious girl, a relationship which outlasts his school years. He tries to be a normal person but fears that perhaps he is not. So what sets this novel apart?

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Denizen is not a horror story but it reveals horrors. Denizen is not a thriller but it has you on tenterhooks as you turn the pages wandering what is going to happen next. Denizen is not a cry for help but shows what can happen when much needed help is unavailable.

Having said what Denizen is not, it unquestionably is one of the best novels by an Australian author in recent times. It is spellbinding, credible and very cleverly constructed.

Publisher: Penguin Viking
ISBN: 978176104610

Format: Paperback
Pages: 352pp
Release Date: 19 July 2022
RRP: $32.99

Erich Mayer is a retired company director and former organic walnut farmer.