Book review: The Brink, Holden Sheppard

Sheppard's second book is an exploration of masculinity, sexuality, and mental health.

Schoolies celebrations are notoriously rowdy, but the leavers in Holden Sheppard’s The Brink have more to worry about than just drinking and partying. Following an abrupt change of plans, a group of friends end up spending their leavers’ week on a remote island. Their drinking and partying is cut abruptly short though, when a body is found on the beach, and friends turn on one another.

Sheppard’s second novel follows three main characters – Leonardo, Mason and Kaiya – over the most tumultuous week of their lives. The three teenagers grapple not just with the rapidly unfolding chaos around them, but also with their own inner turmoil.

Following his mother’s death, Leonardo is trying to unlearn her toxic views on masculinity, and to embrace his own version of what it means to be a man. Mason is struggling to reconcile his sexuality with his perception of himself, as well as desperately trying to deny his feelings for his best friend. Kaiya is crippled by the expectations of her parents and feels that she needs to work twice as hard to make up for the effect that her sister’s issues with addiction has had on the family.

All three, on the periphery of their social groups, are drawn together when a resident of the island is found dead on the beach, and questions swirl as to what – or who – killed him. 

The Brink features a well-plotted, twisting mystery, with readers and characters alike kept guessing. The setting, while fictional, is recognisable to anyone familiar with the Western Australian coast and adds to the sense of isolation and fear experienced by the stranded leavers.

Sheppard achieves an authentic and believable teenaged voice, with his representation of a specifically Australian young adulthood experience shining through.

While packaged as a thriller, The Brink has a lot more going on beneath the surface, exploring how teenagers, especially boys, navigate coming of age and what it means to them. Following on from his debut novel, Invisible Boys, Sheppard continues to explore experiences of growing up gay in Australia and how expectations of masculinity intersect with these experiences.

The Brink delves into the way the perception of masculinity by some as inherently toxic can harm young men, and how rigid definitions of what it means to be a man stifle teenage boys as they approach adulthood. These perspectives are explored through Mason and Leonardo’s chapters, with their characters evolving throughout the novel.

However, the focus on masculinity and manhood means that while Kaiya’s story is a key part of the novel, her own coming of age is explored in less depth and her character development is less satisfying than that of Mason and Leonardo.  

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The Brink’s exploration of coming of age, and its unfiltered, while extreme, representation of teenage reality adds depth and substance to the murder mystery element of the plot. The book manages to touch on a whole spectrum of issues, including mental health and anxiety, alcoholism and addiction, and exploring who you are outside of high school.

Its insight into the trials and tribulations that young adults face, boys especially, makes it perfect for teenagers approaching adulthood, or for the adults in their lives who want to connect with and understand their experiences as they come of age.

The Brink by Holden Sheppard
Publisher: Text Publishing
ISBN: 9781922458643
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 352pp
Publication Date: May 2022
RRP: $24.99

Elena Perse is a Master of Professional Writing and Publishing student and book lover. Her work has been published by Pelican Magazine, Westerly Magazine and FRINGEWORLD.