Book review: Taking Tom Murray Home by Tim Slee

(cover image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

For most people, the death of a loved one is a mostly private affair; granted there is a funeral and often a wake, all very public by their very nature, but for the most part, it’s an intensely-traumatic personal thing.

Not so for Dawn Murray, wife of Tom who, in an act of defiance to the bank which is perilously near to foreclosing on their stricken dairy farm, decides the only course of action left to him is to burn the family home down.

Sadly, Tom dies in the attempt which, his death aside, is eminently successful in getting his intended point across, an accidental fatality that sets in motion a series of events that draw attention to the plight of Australia’s small business and owner-operator farms.

It is these events, and the intensely personal story of Dawn and her twin 13-year-old children Jack and Jenny, that gives 2018 Banjo prize winning novel, Taking Tom Murray Home by Tom Slee, the kind of emotional evocativeness of which true classics are made.

This exquisitely laconic tale is full of great pain and sadness but also, and this is key to understanding why it is such an enriching read, the richness that comes from being supported and loved by close friends and family right when you need it the most.

“And Mum says, quiet as you like, ‘There’s no law against a man burning down his own house, you confirmed that. Plus, I never called the fire service and just because you don’t like it is not my problem.’ Mum has a good glare on her when she’s like that and you don’t want to be on the pointy end of that glare but just the same you don’t want to miss it when she’s using it on someone else, especially a policeman.” (P. 3)

What emerges most vividly is that Dawn and her two children – it is Jack who acts as narrator offers a perspective that is at once both sweetly naive and desperately knowing – have always been wrapped in a cocoon of love and support from the townspeople of the fictional Victorian rural town of Yardley (based loosely, says the author, on the actual town of Heywood).

It is on Tom’s death, which is every bit as traumatising as you can imagine (more so, to be fair, given the publicity it attracts) though that this ever-present sense of community becomes even more substantial and muscular, lending support to Dawn who, encouraged by Coach Don of the local AFL team, the Lions, decides to take her husband’s body to his family’s burial plots in the suburb of Carlton, Melbourne.

The key here is that Dawn, a woman of iron will and unstoppable tenacity, is going to do it very, VERY slowly, 20 km/hour slow in fact, on the back of a milk cart pulled by the draught horse of close friends, the Garretts.

Winding from Yardly down the Great Ocean Road through towns like Portland, Colac and Sorrento – though the last town ends on the itinerary accidentally, a triumph of Dawn and her devoted team over police planning – the funeral procession (Dawn is at pains not to pain it as anything inflammatory as a protest though that is exactly what it is) is a great big “f**k you” to the banks, the supermarkets and any one of the other powers that be that have made life for people on farms and in rural areas generally almost impossibly difficult.

Tim Slee (image courtesy Harper Collins Australia)

In this digital age of ours where nothing noteworthy, and let’s be honest, even un-noteworthy, doesn’t happen without saturation media coverage and viral social media chatter, Dawn’s procession attracts the expected amount of attention and then some, drawing interest and, most importantly, support from an array of disaffected interests along the route, and even further afield.

Unfortunately, it also attracts the actions of an arsonist, who targets banks and supermarkets in each town they go through, turning the police who, apart from hometown policeman Senior Sergeant Hussein Karsiglu (better known as Karsi in the grand Australian tradition of shortening every name ever) even more against what is, by any definition, the most democratic form of expression there is for anyone.

What makes Taking Tom Murray Home such a compelling, deeply-affecting read is that for all its great humour and larrikinism, it is also intimately aware of how grief can be an agent of furious action, powered by pain so great that the only way to deal with it, as much as you can ever deal with grief, is to something, anything.

Dawn doesn’t ever say that, of course, and Jack especially isn’t entirely sure why they’re undertaking the procession although he understands the broad brush strokes of the intent, but the palpable hand of action-impelling unimaginable grief is everywhere, meaning that Taking Tom Murray Home is both delightfully, quirkily funny and heartbreakingly, authentically real too.

There is an amusing element to the procession, thanks to the ever-present Aussie willingness to stick it to the establishment, augmented by the warmth and love and support that comes the sense of family that the townspeople provide to the now three-member Murray family, but it is also confrontingly sad in the all-too-honest way it addresses very real issues facing people who have finally had enough and need to do something about it.

“The whole thing with Jenny and Mum just makes me more determined than ever to find out what really happened to Dad. Karsi [policeman] didn’t buy my theory the bank man murdered Dad and he isn’t buying my new idea Dad’s death might have been faked. He’s standing by his police car doing his teeth using water in a cup when I tell him my theory.” (P. 152)

The procession that Dawn thinks will make a bit of splash ends up stirring up a tsunami’s worth of resentment and need for action, its effect snowballing as it goes town-to-town, evoking a rousing sense that real change is possible.

It likely won’t of course, and deep down Dawn knows that, as do every member of the parade and family that accompany her and Tom to Melbourne, but the need for the procession has less to do with what it might achieve, and more to do with giving Dawn and the kids a way of deal with the monumentally overwhelming nature of the grief they are feeling.

They are, after all, not simply mourning Tom’s death, though goodness knows that is big enough a thing to deal with on its own, but the loss of their farm, and the potential loss of the life they have known up to this point.

It’s a lot to handle, and frankly the procession, though it is seen as a fool’s errand by some, is no less crazy that any of the other things people do to navigate the murky, near-ruinous reefs of grief.

Taking Tom Murray Home is a joy to read – alternating between upliftingly cheeky and happy, and the deadending sense that comes with deeply-felt pain and loss, it is a profoundly touching, distinctly Australian story of how one family copes with a loss too terrible to contemplate, and the life-changing consequences that flow from it, changes that, especially, in a climax that will surprise you, are proof of the tenacity and durability of the human spirit even when it’s pushed to the very limit.

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