Prescott, Shaun. Bon and Lesley. Penrith: Giramondo Publishing Company, 2022. RRP: $29.95, 288pp, ISBN: 9781922725257.
Bon and Lesley is a book with a benign name and a haunting heart. It’s a probing, surreal and unsettling novel interlacing natural disaster, family, anarchy and belonging—and an absorbing read. The book is the second novel from Blue Mountains writer and gamer Shaun Prescott, following his powerful debut, The Town.
When Bon, a man of indeterminate age, disembarks from a train in the Blue Mountains town of Newnes, an ‘ugly and unfussy town’ (3), he disembarks from his, to that point, mundane life. All the reader learns of Bon until the closing pages is that, after school, he ‘had gone to work, and then worked. He worked in the day and then worked in the night’ (5). Newnes, like Bon, is so featureless that Bon fears he’ll not find the train station again, the reason he accepts the offer—almost a dare—to stay with Steven Grady, a garrulous, petulant armchair philosopher, whom he meets at the town’s shopping plaza.
Bon, passive and in Steven’s thrall, bins his SIM card and, over time, becomes stranded in Newnes. Together, the two search for hidden roads and portals (Steven’s obsession), shop for snack food specials, watch TV and drink. A month or so after Bon’s arrival, Steven brings another stray, Lesley, home from the plaza. They ‘rescue’ Steven’s enigmatic younger brother Jack from the Grady family home and their disgruntled mother, bringing him to live with them. Whether screen-addicted Jack is a genius savant or a deluded narcissist, the reader cannot be sure. Amid skies toasted by bushfire, the four drift into becoming a family of sorts, or, as the preface alludes to in a quote from Eve Langley’s The Pea Pickers, ‘an oblique sort of family’.
The days themselves become so featureless that the story, with its frequent allusions to things hidden before our eyes, might initially be seen as a celebration of the mundane and miniscule. But this gradually morphs into a disorientating and vaguely sinister undercurrent. The atmosphere of Bon and Lesley is suffocating, and one longs for an ocean gale to rip through their house and rouse the four from their inertia. Lives shrivel like plastic on a hotplate, a trip to buy beer or the arrangement of snack food on a plate becoming mammoth concerns.
In depicting this aimless torpor—in a narrative that eschews the scaffolding of a more traditional plot—Prescott dispenses with those other markers of orientation such as chapter breaks and quotation marks. Their absence adds to the sense of unbordered days and nights. The novel contains three parts that loosely reflect location and perspective (Bon’s or Lesley’s), but that’s all there is in the way of signposting. Critically, Steven’s monologues are given oxygen by being interspersed with Bon’s and Lesley’s unspoken responses.
Prescott turns an apocalyptic lens onto disturbingly familiar landscapes, and fair enough too. The author lives in the Blue Mountains which not long ago were torched by bushfire. What’s not alight soon will be—the shopping plaza, once burned down, will not be rebuilt, and the dreamlike town of Sofala becomes engulfed in flame. Trains stop running; people gather coven-like in ruins and around open fires on street corners; rocks are pelted onto rooftops by night, landing ‘bracing and crisp as gunfire’; and dogs are ‘trained to kill when off their leashes’ (255).
Within this nightmare, Lesley indulges a growing impulse to mother ‘her boys’, the Grady brothers. It’s hard to know which is more alarming—the drunken lethargy and mindless setting alight of things in Newnes, or the cloying co-dependency between Lesley, Jack and Steven in their new home, another patch of suburbia where the boys drink water rather than rum. ‘[Lesley] always had the boys fed by seven and in bed by eight’ (255); and later:
Jack got straight into bed with her. He didn’t ask what she’d been doing outside. He lay facing her, forehead pressed against hers, his breath smelling of toothpaste and sour. She watched his eyelids occasionally part. After a while he nodded off, his mouth parted, and his face adopted the expression of a curious child. She laid a leg over him and fell asleep. (259)
But that’s family for you.
The novel’s language can be brutal. For instance, Prescott describes skin under nails and ‘hair-matted flesh’ in clothes (267). But it can also be meditative: ‘It would have been nice to feel allied to one’s previous self, to transmit comforting affirmations back through time’, Prescott writes, from Lesley’s perspective (166–7). The language is often delicately descriptive, too:
They were the type of tree illustrated in children’s picture books. Standing at the foot of this winding road, the sun shone directly through the thinner edges of the branches and into Bon’s eyes. Around these thinner edges, the deep green leaves surrendered to the oncoming winter, bunches appeared to glow with a regal shade of orange. (32)
There’s also an energising undercurrent of humour, often leaning on the humdrum, such as when Bon, having endured a searing rant from Lesley in which she paints him as ‘an elections and petitions kind of person’—hypocritical, timid and bland—indignantly reassures himself with ‘he’d never eaten a ceremonial sausage at a polling booth, had in fact meaningfully avoided it’ (72).
So, what is the novel about? Certainly there is no easy, or singular, answer. Reviewer Adam Rivett describes it as a ‘haunting vision of our national blankness’ (2022). Is it also a rumination on what we gain or risk when we seek to escape the patterns of our daily lives? Grandma, listening with Lesley to techno Christmas carols, asserts that ‘Everyone needs a climax’ (260). Perversely though, the novel contains many artful anti-climactic moments. One such is when Steven warns Bon, as they gaze upon a ‘magical’ road Bon missed from his daily train, that climaxes are ephemeral:
You’ll never have your fill of this beautiful road… the moment we turn away to walk back into town, you’ll feel wistful about leaving the road, and you’ll want to come back. […] The moment you get here is the moment you wanted, and if you linger—like we are now—you’ll only be forcing yourself to appreciate the road, you’ll only be pretending. You’ll be underwhelmed by the beautiful road. It’s an underwhelming road. (33–4)
Against the novel’s backdrop of catastrophic climate change and social disintegration, perhaps the key—and non-rhetorical—question then becomes, ‘Why do we persist with “being” at all?’
Rivett, Adam. ‘A disappearing act that is haunting and brilliant.’ The Sydney Morning Herald, September 30, 2022, Review, (https://www.smh.com.au/culture/books/a-disappearing-act-that-is-haunting-and-brilliant-20220927-p5blco.html; Accessed 15/03/23.)
Jen Banyard is the author of four novels for young readers (published by Fremantle Press) and numerous stories. She has a PhD in creative writing from the University of Western Australia.