Review: The Accident by Kate Hendrick

accidenthendrickAs I mentioned in my AWW 2013 roundup, my reading plan this year is not about the AWW challenge but about the full shelf of books I’ve acquired over the last few years and not yet read. I’m making good progress, and I’ve already read four of the 24 books that were in my book stash at the beginning of the month.

The Accident by Kate Hendrick had been sitting there since June, when Text Publishing so kindly sent it to me for review. I wish I’d got to it sooner. It’s a terrific book, and so smoothly and confidently written in a first novel. If I’d read it back then, I could have told you all about it sooner, and so spurred you on to read it yourselves six months ago. Still, I can tell you now, and maybe incite a new rush.

Because The Accident is superb. It’s elegant. It’s complex. It seems to be going one way and then goes another.

The story is told through the eyes of three different people – Sarah, Will and Eliat – but also through three different points in time – Before, After and Later. The narrative explores the ripple effect of a car accident.

First we meet Sarah, Later – starting at a new school, repeating year 12, recovering from the leg injury she got in the accident and working through the loss she and her family experienced as well. She and they are both struggling with what has happened. Throughout the chapters we see Sarah’s emotional struggle through her art. She loves photography, but has taken to constructing technically perfect but emotionally distanced pictures of buildings.

Next, we meet Will, After. The accident is not mentioned, but we learn that one of Will’s sisters was deeply affected by the events surrounding the crash, which occurred during a drought-breaking storm. Will’s family already faces challenges, including the emotional absence of their writer mother and the sudden reappearance of the father who abandoned them. Will’s relationship with Lauren changes, though, because Lauren has changed. His other sister, Morgan – who is a Later friend of Sarah’s – is creative and angry. Will’s neighbour, Kayla, is bringing changes into his life as well. Everything is changing everything else, and Will is poised at the cusp, afraid to change with it, but maybe afraid not to, as well.

Eliat we meet in the time Before. A teen mum staying with foster parents, she’s trying to deal with school, her daughter, her foster parents and her discontent and pain about her past. She drinks, she lies, she is caught between the responsibilities of parenthood, the need to be a child and the gaping absence of memory that set her on this path. She needs change too, if only she can see it.

Characters meet and circle each other, part of the network of cause and effect. The teens and their families are beautifully written: believable and fragile in their grief and difficulties. It’s brilliant how the night of the accident is approached from all these time points, so that when it comes near the end of the novel, you know what’s led to it, what spins out from it, but the actual facts of the accident are not known until that last moment. That it’s not what you thought (or feared) is an elegant bit of plotting and writing.

One of the aspects of this book I loved so well was the relationship of various characters to creativity. Will’s mother’s creativity has become a wall erected between her and her family, a destructive force rather than one of release and connection. Sarah’s photography has become sterile, because she cannot let herself feel. Morgan’s passion for theatre and art are her only release when her family connections have failed her. Kayla’s final, very practical work of craft has an enormous emotional impact, while Eliat’s focus on neural mapping and memory technique are a way to creatively capture the gaps in her life, to try to make sense of them. The act of creation is, like the fact of being human, laden with meaning about change, growth and connection.

The Accident‘s subject matter is loss and grief, but its themes are healing, connection and change. Those are subject and themes we all know too well in our lives, and Kate Hendrick offers a thoughtful, compassionate study on them all.