Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review: FREDERICK'S COAT by Alan Duff

FREDERICK'S COAT by Alan Duff (Vintage, 2013)

Reviewed by Karen Chisholm

From the author of Once Were Warriors, FREDERICK'S COAT is equally as surprising, challenging, moving and profoundly affecting. It's also particularly unusual in that it looks past the crime, the investigation and jail time to a life that is being rebuilt.

Johno comes from a long line of single fathers. So it's no particular surprise that his release from jail after a long sentence doesn't lead to happy ever after in his personal life. Despite trying, it's not long before his wife packs up and leaves him, taking their daughter with her. This leaves Johno responsible for the care of their son Danny. Johno vows to go straight, to set a good example, to be different from his own father and grandfather. That's not to say that anything they did was cruel, or exploitative. In their own way, this is a family of caring and loving men. Lifetime criminals who did their best, it's that habitual criminal aspect that Johno is determined to avoid for Danny.

From the very start, as soon as Johno comes out of jail, it's obvious that Danny's very different. It's not just his artistic ability, there's something else. His social skills aren't good, he's instantly the target of bullies in school, he simply doesn't fit in. Johno takes each of the challenges that Danny throws at him and does the very best he can. He also works hard, builds a business, makes a lot of money, stays as straight as he possibly can, cares for Danny, encourages his artistic interests, is proud of his son. Along the way he helps out old friends, and eventually finds love of his own. All the while Danny's behaviour becomes more odd, and stretches Johno's understanding further. Although nobody could possibly predict the outcome when Danny befriends a homeless man. All Johno can do at that stage is stand by and watch the car crashing - or does he fall back on old connections from his criminal past?

FREDERICK'S COAT is an unusual crime novel in that it's exploring long term consequences. It does that in a particularly moving and sobering way. There's so much here about the struggle to change your destiny, the difficulties in handling the temptations that we all brush up against every day, and the ease with which wrong decisions can be made. It's also most definitely a story about love. There's real love between these generations of men, and there is a stoic acceptance of failings, foibles and faults.

There's also a touch of steel displayed. Johno is a man who is determined to get in front of his background, to make a change in his life. He's quiet about it, not flashy and not prone to emotional outbursts but there's something about him, in particular, that was so real, so raw and so beautifully drawn that it's almost impossible to get to the end of this book without a tear in the eye.

Regardless of whether you believe (as this reader does) that FREDERICK'S COAT is a psychological thriller, an exploration of background, upbringing and influence, it is definitely an outstanding analysis of consequences.

Regardless of how you want to classify it, FREDERICK'S COAT is different. Beautiful, moving and a difficult book to read, it was an absolute privilege to do so.

*FREDERICK'S COAT was a finalist for the 2014 Ngaio Marsh Award


Karen Chisholm is one of the most respected crime fiction reviewers in Australia. An absolute stalwart of antipodean crime fiction, Karen created and has been running her Aust Crime Fiction website since 2006, highlighting a plethora of authors and titles from this part of the world, to the wider world online. It is a terrific resource - please check it out. 

Karen also reviews for other outlets, such as the Newtown Review of Books, and since 2014 has been a Judge of the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Crime Novel - the New Zealand crime writing award. Her reviews of New Zealand crime novels will now be shared here on Crime Watch as well as on Aust Crime Fiction


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