Allan-Petale, David. Locust Summer. Fremantle Press, 2021. RRP $29.99, 240pp, ISBN: 9781925816365.
How can you compare to someone no longer living and idealised in memory? That’s the question that Rowan Brockman—the protagonist in David Allan-Petale’s stunning debut novel Locust Summer—struggles with as he returns to his hometown of Septimus in the Western Australian Wheatbelt to help his family with one last harvest.
Rowan left behind his family and community, breaking with tradition, and moved to Perth to become a journalist. It’s two years since his brother and heir to the family farm, Arthur, died and Rowan’s mother has called him back to help with one final harvest before she sells the place for good. His homecoming isn’t exactly a point of celebration—for Rowan or his family—but it offers him one last chance to make peace with a place he never really felt like he belonged to.
Even ensconced in the city, far away from the bush and farm community of Septimus, Rowan is haunted by his late brother at every turn.
The image of the drunk’s bloodied face came again, holding the humour of my brother’s eyes. He’d been dead for two years. Still I saw him walking down the street, sitting down next to me in a pub, reflected in the gore my profession sometimes elevated to the front page. (8)
Rowan is a man living constantly in the shadow of both his own and his family’s expectations of him. That he is so unlike his brother positions him as an outcast, as someone whose only connection to his family is farming, a profession he has no interest in.
The brother remembered by my mother was invincible. The captain of the ship in a storm. Mine was the merry prankster, his face unburdened by the sun lines and scars it bore when he was alive. (162)
Albert’s face here is described as physically marked by the natural elements, the scars he has gained in manual labour that define him as someone who works the land. It identifies him, in Rowan’s eyes, and provides a point of comparison for how Rowan’s own physicality defines his identity. Rowan’s physicality is very different to that of the manual labourers of his home community. His parents comment on it and make no secret of the fact that they consider his choice of profession to be a kind of rejection—and perhaps betrayal—of their way of life.
‘Good to see city hands at work,’ Dad said, patting me on the back as we walked around to the veranda, his careful cadence measured with the plosive tick of the generator. (12)
This subtle comment from father to son opens up a Pandora’s box of questions around Rowan’s choice to take on a different kind of work, one that is considered less meaningful in the eyes of his family. This is just one of the skilful ways in which Allan-Petale constructs his characters in Locust Summer; through subtlety, suggestion and pinpoint perfect dialogue.
The constant barrage of comparison that Rowan faces from his family and community add to this sense that he is uncertain of which personality—country boy or city professional—is his true self. He embodies a kind of antisyzygy (duelling personalities in one body, like Jekyll and Hyde) of those two aspects of Australian identity, the town and country. Rowan’s battle is between who he wants to be (a journalist) and who he is expected to be (a farmer). This battle within him is apparent in his repeated attempts to prove himself. ‘I looked at my hands, still smooth from officework, and threw the new work gloves aside.’ (73) Here Allan-Petale once again, with subtle ease, shows the complexities of Rowan’s character. The barbs about soft city hands and non-manual labour have clearly had an impact on him, to the point where he makes the conscious decision to throw away the gloves that will protect him from the pain of manual labour. Instead he embraces it, seemingly as a means of proving to himself that he is as tough as his father and brother were.
There is another kind of duality in Locust Summer, and that is the literal difference between the two places that Rowan inhabits. The first is the hot, dry, unpredictable bush of his childhood, the country town where hard work is the only work. The other is the city; sleek, interesting and full of bright lights and other kinds of professions. Throughout the book he is consistently caught between bush and ocean, country and city.
At night it was remorselessly still. Sweating in my sheets, I thirsted for Alison, for the Indian Ocean down in Scarborough, imagining those cold rollers hissing in the low-tide shallows with glowing white foam lit by the spotlights of the surf club. (85)
Even at home, where he knows he should ‘belong’, he longs for his life in the city, away from the expectation of his community, but still with the woman who was his childhood sweetheart. Rowan seems unable to place himself fully in either place, always seeming to have one foot in the country and one in the city.
Locust Summer is, at first glance, a seemingly straightforward tale of one man’s journey to find himself and make peace with his past. But it is so much more than that. David Allan-Petale has written a rich, complex and heart-wrenching novel that is full of insight into how our past stays with us, wherever we go, and whoever we decide to be.
Jen is a writer and journalist based in Perth. She lived and worked in Edinburgh, Scotland for ten years and has written for a number of UK newspapers and magazines including The List, The Guardian and The Scotsman. She previously worked for Scoop Events and in the marketing team at Fremantle Press, and is now a freelance writer and editor.