It will hardly come as a newsflash to anyone that we live in a world with very fixed, and by “fixed” I mean concreted and superglued in place with all the concrete and super glue every produced, idea about everything.
Of course, no one ever stands up and hands you a rule book dictating what you should do and say and when but somehow we know it deep down, and we spend our lives either imprisoned by it or trying to escape its heavy-handed hold on our lives.
Just how destructive all these unquestioned assumptions and passive-aggressive demands on the authenticity of our personhood are come to the blistering neon-lit fore in Holden Sheppard beyond compelling second novel, The Brink, a book that by its title alone, suggests that perhaps there is a use-by date on how much we should let these pernicious influences shape who we are.
Set during what Western Australians called “Leavers” and those on the eastern coast call “Schoolies”, The Brink tells the sobering story of a group of schoolmates – to call them friends would be overstate the case completely; the friendships, such as they are, make those who have sworn mortal enemyhood to each other look pally by comparison – head off to let their hair down with drugs, alcohol and sex and a sense that here something ends.
Just how true the last part of the equation is isn’t clear to anyone at the start of a novel which pulses with the heady sense that something has gone and something is about to dawn but no one knows exactly what.
“… There’s a grown man lurking within me, a muscular monster hiding deep underground in the hot, molten mantle of my body. He is everything I’ve never let myself feel: anger, aggression, power, raw masculinity. I can feel him move sometimes, like a tremor in the earth’s crust. But I’m scared of what would happen if I let him out. I’m as scared of him as I am of dying.” (Leonardo / P. 16)
But as the best laid plans of popular kids and outlier hangers-on go wrong and the group find themselves on the remote expanse of Brink Island, far from the bright lights and hedonistic fun of the rest of the chaotic Leavers circus, it becomes patently clear that they are on the edge of something momentous and that it won’t be birthed without a considerable amount of disruption and pain.
Not that anyone has disappeared down that ruminative rabbit hole just yet though key character Leonardo, who detests his name, his sense of self and his very blighted existence on this earth, is well on his way to wandering what the hell life holds for him as the carnival of alcohol-soaked misery that is this particular Leavers outing does its best to pretend it’s the end of things and not the beginning.
Leonardo is not suicidal but he is desperately disappointed in the hand life has dealt him as he juggles the death of a coercive, controlling mother, a six year-long militant rejection by his childhood bestie Jared, who is also on the trip with girlfriend Val and new BFF Kaiya (a sudden substitute for one time best friend Taylor who’s along for the ride with boyfriend Ryan), and a searing sense that he has failed to be a real man.
This is where those corrosive societal expectations come into play.
Leonardo, (do not call him Leo) is stuck between a clearly traditionally masculine father and a mother who hated everything that embodies, and he isn’t sure exactly what being a man actually looks like.
Neither is Jared’s close friend Mason, a ruggedly handsome, muscular guy who is the very epitome of how a man should look and act, in Leonardo’s eyes at least, but who is grappling with the fact with some explosive sexual identity conundrums of his own.
If Leonardo only knew how conflicted and torn Mason is, and how he pines for Jared in a way he is not allowed to express if he intends to adhere to traditional ideas of manhood – and really why is he? Why is anyone? We need to them go for god’s sake, he might rethink just how manly he is or isn’t.
Leonardo, Mason and Kaiya are all questioning a great deal about their lives, but keeps it close to their chests, losing themselves in the hedonism of Leavers which precludes any kind of serious or meaningful conversation until a series of terrible events take place and the world as they know it is gone.
It’s not even remotely the kind of reckoning any of them are expecting, and Sheppard does an excoriatingly superlative job of exploring what happens to young people when all their ideas about who they are and how their lives will be from this point onwards are challenged, and in some cases, utterly derailed like never before, and how what is an end for some is a beginning for others.
Or simply for two particular people on the trip, which includes another 5 or 6 people who are essentially caught in the crossfire, continuance of the status quo which is slowly but surely eating them alive and any sense of hope about lies ahead with it.
“It’s so f**ked up.
Eventually, Ryan does his control-freak thing and shuts down the argument, saying everyone just has to accept what Max said. I’m sire it won’t be the last we speak of it, but after Ryan smacked Jared with the cricket bat everyone’s edgy about challenging him—so things are quiet, for a while, at least.” (P. 245)
The Brink is a compelling firecracker of a book that goes to some intensely dark places, not least the very depths of some troubled souls, and while it pedal to the metal action, it is of the kind that asks to examine why it is we, as a society, have so much trouble simply letting people be their authentic selves.
There is an undoubted particular focus on masculinity, how it is perceived and expressed and how wrong ideas about it can near destroy a person, but the overall thrust of The Brink is a clarion call to let people be themselves and not judge them or make their lives a living hell because they fail to live up to one-twisted-size-fits-all expectations handed down by an insecure mainstream too frightened to deal with difference.
That there are differences aplenty amongst this group is clear from the first few chapters but what is not clear, and what has you turning pages with a frenetic need to see what happens next in a book rich with action but full of tremendous meaning and emotional weight, is how these will find expression during a place and time where all the old certainties are thrown violently into the air and something new beckons, its form and shape yet to be determined but ripe with possibility, whether certain people want it or not.
Written with raw honesty and searing empathy by an author who has lived within the confines of imprisoning expectations and who has now fought free of them, The Brink is stunningly good, a rich and intensely affecting exploration of authenticity, masculinity and how if these erroneous ideas about who people are and who they should be aren’t addressed the results can be violently explosive, leading to great change that may eventually yield good results but only at tremendous cost that could be avoided if only we could be truly honest with each other.