Tag Archives: Donnellan


by Jon Doust

Fremantle Press, 236pp, $24.95

reviewed by Jo Donnellan


Jon Doust is well known in Western Australia as an amusing speaker of wiry physique, his low-key anecdotal style reminiscent of Garrison Keilor with a touch of Walter Mitty. He is perhaps lesser known as a writer.

His first serious novel, ‘Boy on a Wire’, telling of the adolescent years of the boy Jack Muir, reveals the author’s depth and passion. It is the story of a child whose clear Christian ethic and blazing sense of justice are confounded by his family, his peers and by his Christian boarding school. Most of the characters are composites*, yet the story is evidently based on experience.

Why was it written? As a personal catharsis, or to reveal the dark side of a particular school system, or to acknowledge those who sank beneath the weight of the system, as well as those who survived? The dedication reads ‘For all those boys who carried their scars into manhood’.

Notwithstanding some very funny passages, the predominant mood of the book is dark. Themes of cruel oppression, injustice and disillusion run through it. There are beatings and fights, and persecution both physical and spiritual.

The cover design shows the back view of a young man standing on top of a stone column above a grey rippling ocean. The man is dressed for cold weather. It is a lonely image.

Doust uses the first person, present tense throughout, giving immediacy to the narrative. His graceful English is without tricks or crudity: minimal slang is used, even in dialogue. Only the foreign accent of a particular character is indicated phonetically.

Parallel with the action run Jack’s intense interior monologues and conversations with God, providing important windows into his inner self.

* Probably the only character given his real name is Tom Brittain, a Manjimup forester, a handsome quiet man of towering physique: a man who revered the majestic timber of the south-west forests. The log chop at the local show was his event. A master of his craft, he made it look easy.


Jack enjoys chopping wood and visualises ‘Big Tom Brittain swinging from the hips in slow perfect movements and dismantling huge logs of the hardest wood on Planet Earth.’ Images of Big Tom Brittain’s rhythm and contained strength recur in Jack’s mind at moments of threat and confusion at boarding school.


The novel is set in the nineteen sixties in a farming and timber town in south-west Western Australia and in a Perth city boarding school. Jack’s practical, unimaginative father is a shopkeeper. His mother, emotionally volatile yet submissive, is a churchgoer who teaches Jack a strict system of truthfulness and respect. The parents produce two contrasting offspring. Unlike his stolid, capable elder brother Thomas, Jack is sensitive, witty, volatile, not to be trusted with machinery, and an indifferent scholar. His parents ascribe his shortcomings to a medical condition:

He’s often irritable, Doctor, and his teacher worries about him…his face is often very red. Do you think it’s the pinks disease?


What is it, Doctor, I ask, the pinks disease?


It’s all right Mrs Muir. It’s time he knew. Pinks disease, acrodynia, is mercury poisoning, son. When you were a baby you had all the symptoms: peeling skin, rashes, pink scalp, irritability and respiratory distress.


How did I get it?


We’re not sure, but a lot of baby products had mercury in them and some babies were very sensitive to it, but not all. Clearly your brother Thomas wasn’t.


And that is that. The doctor gives me some medication, confirms that some doctors believe salt will help.

Embedded in this passage is the disturbing idea that his parents may have inadvertently poisoned him.

Salt becomes a recurring element. In moments of exasperation, trying to cool his hot head, Jack licks salt from his palm. His father, making indirect reference to his inadequacies, constantly reminds him to eat plenty of salt. Later Jack becomes expert at surfing in the salty ocean.

Lists are another recurring motif. His father makes daily detailed lists of prosaic tasks he and his sons must do. At boarding school Jack makes a more potent list, of five bullies to be paid back. At the back of the book another list outlines the eventual fates of the main characters.

Birds are significant. The story opens with Thomas shooting parrots. The difference between the brothers is revealed by Thomas’ impassive efficiency, while Jack anxiously questions their right to destroy life.

Perversely Jack shoots one of his mother’s favourite small birds. Afterwards he tussles with the notions of Satan’s power within him, and of God’s avenging wrath.

A new boarder at secondary school, he is shocked and frightened by an unjustified beating from a housemaster. Bewildered, naked and in pain, he recalls the image of a small bird he once saw clinging to an overhead power line in a storm, blown about helplessly until it flew off to the shelter of a big old tree. For Jack there is no tree, no haven in this so-called godly school. He remains the ‘Boy on a Wire’.

During a tortured adolescent phase he kills and burns a crow, carelessly starting a bushfire. (In a forest region this is a serious offence). His father’s scornful rejection completes his sense of desolation.


Jack struggles to explain man’s inhumanity to man. In his childish mind the issues are clear and God’s silence is inexplicable. The mystery of God’s silence in the face of wrongdoing pervades the book.

The injustice of his parents’ favouritism galls him. Brotherly friendship is impossible due as much to his parents’ attitude as to the gulf between the sensibilities of the two boys. Events burden Jack with an uneasy mix of anger, guilt and protectiveness towards Thomas.

At Grammar School not only are the masters unpredictably violent; the bigger boys bully the smaller, newer ones. Jack’s intense feeling for integrity and fair play is outraged by the hypocrisy of the authorities and by the cowardly brutality of the bullies.

Throughout the book runs a thread of sexual persecution.

The local butcher takes liberties with married women on social occasions and to Jack’s dismay nobody challenges him. At primary school a teacher ogles the female students and Jack fumes hotly at the crassness of the man.

Jack’s mother suffers a troubled relationship with her father. Obliquely the cause of her bowed spirit and her unstable temperament is linked to some form of paternal oppression.

At boarding school each new boarder is ritually subjected to crude and painful indignities. A vulnerable boy is traumatised by this treatment. Jack divines the boy’s deep shame and sexual confusion. He makes it his solemn mission to avenge the boy’s suffering.

With all his strength Jack manages to resist an ambush by a group of older boys who would drag him behind closed doors for ugly purposes. He escapes at the cost of a thorough bruising.

A distraught young boy confides in him after an incident of interference by a stranger. Jack manages by means of quiet sympathy, respect, and a touch of humour, to comfort and restore the boy. It is a redemptive moment, described with consummate sureness.


Slowly Jack finds a way of being. His elder brother moves on. He counts down the list of bullies he has vowed to humble. He discovers girls. Unofficial rites of passage involving drink, and the law, take place. He opens up a rapport with his father. Jack’s relationship with God alters and his ties to the church loosen. Jack Muir has learned to take life with a grain of salt. He will survive to ‘carry his scars into manhood’.


Doust’s writing is powerful in its unpretentiousness. The spareness of his prose allows the content full impact. Skilful understatement in the telling adds drollery to the humorous passages. The author takes us deep into the tender, idealistic heart of the child Jack Muir. This is sincerely felt storytelling accomplished with a light but compelling touch.

JD, Perth, August 2009

Los Tres Rios (The Three Rivers): Lorca in New York


Downstairs at the Maj

His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth


reviewed by Jo Donnellan


Federico García Lorca (1898-1936), poet, playwright and musician, wrote:

 All the Arts are capable of possessing duende, but naturally the field is

 widest in music, in dance, and in spoken poetry, because they require

 as interpreter a living body.

(Duende: the creative magic flowing from the very core of the soul).

Five musicians and four dancers brought their living interpretations to the intimate downstairs cabaret theatre of His Majesty’s in a programme reflecting on Lorca and his experiences in New York.

The programme interwove traditional songs of Spain, that Lorca collected and arranged for piano and voice, between dances and instrumental items. Thus the three rivers to which the title refers: music, dance and the spoken word, flowed through the evening.

With two exceptions, all dance offerings were of the introspective cante jondo, ‘deep song’ flamenco genre which was of great significance for Lorca. Choreographies by José Torres and Antonio Vargas were arranged by Deanna Blacher.

A sombre opening: four beautiful women in dark tailored trousers, bare-armed in waistcoats, smooth hair unadorned, seated on wooden chairs on a dimly-lit stage, clapping in bulerias rhythm to flamenco guitar and percussion accompaniment. With piano accompanying the mezzo-soprano in a love song Los Cuatro Muleros, the dancers rose one by one and began moving to the twelve-beat rhythm, building atmosphere by the peremptory tattoo of their feet on the resonant floor and by the supple weaving of their arms.

Torres’ Solea por bulerias followed. The name of the dance comes from the word soledad, translating approximately as solitude. Invented by a male, the quality of this dance was reflected in Ashanti Suriyam’s intense, almost aggressive, expression. Tension was created by the arms moving as though against the resistance of a weight of water. Danielle Ricercato’s exquisitely flared fingertips gave an aching quality to the filigrana, the delicate folding and unfolding of the fingers. Sofia Pradera’s expressive eyes conveyed a poignant mood.

Nola Formentin came into her own in two light-hearted songs, Las Tres Hojas and Las Morillas de Jaen. Her confident, disarming stage presence underpinned the dark timbre and clear top notes of her voice. Neville Cohn, every inch the storyteller with his cloud of white hair and confiding manner, explained the origins of the songs and paid tribute to Lorca’s pianistic and compositional skills. Cohn’s piano accompaniment supported the singer without dominating proceedings.

There followed a charmingly feminine rendition of Dos Muchachas, ‘two friends’. The classic tall blonde Ricercato, as Amparo, sat at her embroidery whilst the servant Lola, played by Karen Henderson, mimed the washing of linen. The two danced together, separated by wealth and class but united in their longing for ‘love in the orange grove’; the whole evoking a rustic, wistful, sensuous atmosphere.

José Giraldo (flamenco guitar) and Marcus Perrozzi on percussion displayed their skill and verve, elaborating on the theme from the film Orfeo Negro, set in the Carnevale of Rio de Janiero. Perrozzi brought brio to his engagement with many different drums. Giraldo announced the plaintive melody and embroidered the variations with masterful restraint and sureness.

In 1929, Lorca seized the chance to travel to New York. Arriving with barely a word of English, the Wall Street crash in progress, his first experiences were daunting. Then he discovered Harlem with its negro spirituals (now called gospel songs), blues and jazz music, the diverse population, the accepting atmosphere: here was nourishment for his wounded soul.

Ashanti Suriyam choreographed the tap dance in Harlem Surprise, her evocation of that sector of New York in 1929. There were several surprises. First, the pianist entered carrying a trombone. Formentin, a plain wool poncho in place of her opulent Spanish shawl, rendered with great sincerity a moving spiritual. Suriyam, in a short orange dress, exploded onto the stage, tapping frenetically with Ricercato, Henderson and Pradera playing hand-held percussion including the tambourine. Inviting the (by now mellow) audience to clap along was a risky ploy. Surprise of surprises, the substantial Perrozzi proved to be a light-footed and accomplished tap-dancer as the singer demonstrated her versatility, playing trombone in the exuberant final ensemble.

Torres’ Tientos por Tangos opened the second half. The four dancers wore the long, flounced skirt with train, the bata de cola, so graceful and so fiendish to manage convincingly. Richly embroidered silks enfolded their svelte torsos. Henderson’s beautifully poised head and seemingly boneless arms combined compellingly with the incisiveness of her foot percussion. The dance evolved into a Tangos, the lighter mood embodied in the final turn and sassy flick of their skirts.

A classic flamenco solea followed for guitar and cajon, the simple wooden box capable of so many subtleties of sound while doubling as a seat. Giraldo’s distinguished appearance, his strong fingers plying the guitar strings, brought us a sense of his native Madrid.

Next a song, En el Café de Chinitas, of two brothers vying with each other for courage and skill in the bullfight. There followed the Sevillanas del Siglo XVIII, the regional dance of Seville as performed in the eighteenth century. Accompanied by piano and song and by their castanets, Henderson and Pradera drew on their ballet backgrounds in this energetic version with its high extensions, springs and turns. Dressed in bouffant orange costumes and ballet slippers, they embodied lightness and joy. The pianist set a stinging pace, challenging the dancers’ timeliness towards the end.

The contrasting couple, Neville Cohn and Deanna Blacher, provided an electrifying tribute to Lorca’s friend and colleague the famous dancer La Argentina, with Albeniz’ Cordoba and de Falla’s Andaluza. The pianist, dressed in quiet blacks, facing away from the audience, began the flowing introduction, drawing with apparent ease handfuls of lyrical melody from the piano. With contained dignity, resplendent in Spanish costume, Blacher carefully adjusted her castanets and took up her pose. The authority of her opening dry trill caught the audience mid-sentence. From then, not a sound was heard but the magic of the combination: music distilled from Moorish, Sephardic and gypsy heritage, rendered on these two contrasting instruments with consummate skill and feeling.

It is not possible to play melody on castanets; the right hand is tuned a little higher than the left, that is all. Blacher used graceful sweeping movements of the arms and subtle changes of pose to complement the melody. In doing so, she added a further layer of virtuosity, as the fingers must adjust to the changing orientation of the castanet shells as the arms move.

In festive floral costumes and flourishing large fringed shawls, the dancers showed their individuality and beauty in Vargas’ Tarantos por Tangos, Henderson opening with a cascade of rapid perfect chaîné turns. Skilful arrangement provided episodes of activity and quiescence rather than a continuous barrage, giving each dancer her moments of prominence.

The traditional bulerias finale in ebullient party mood gave the dancers an opportunity to let their hair down a little with their own improvised solo spots.

Flamenco is an evolving art, capable of a range of expression, from the rawest primitive heartsong to the polished cabaret entertainment seen here. The four young dancers are in command of their technique and stagecraft. They are exploring their individual essence, that which transcends technique. Producer and director Deanna Blacher allowed them a degree of autonomy in this production. Judging by audience response, her confidence was not misplaced.

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