Hawkes, Christopher. The Miscreants. Adelaide: Glimmer Press, 2021. RRP $32.99, 263pp, ISBN: 9780648463528.
The Miscreants is one of those books that creeps back into your mind long after you’ve closed it, so great is the power of the story contained within its pages. Christopher Hawkes’ debut novel somehow embraces the wide unknown of the world and at the same time the minute details that come to define the lives of his characters.
The narrative is a seemingly simple tale of two half-brothers who witness their mother’s suicide at a young age. For Harry and Ethan, that event comes to define their lives as they make the journey from child to man. But years later, when Ethan goes missing and Harry sets out to find him, both boys come to learn how easy it is to rewrite history and get lost in an idea of what life should be like.
The most stunning thing about this novel is the way Hawkes combines his eye for detail with pinpoint accuracy in his use of language, which evokes a time, a place and a feeling so strong it’s as if we are there on the page with the characters.
From the top of Primrose Hill, London was momentarily beautiful—the back shoestring of the canal; the sprawl of the zoo through Regents Park […] In unexpected freedom, the rich and poor played alike, the atmosphere euphoric. The children appeared like felt cut outs against the white slopes, their winter clothes all reds and greens and yellows. (9)
This passage, from the first page of the book, sets the standard for what we can expect from the rest of the novel. Regardless of the viewpoint we are in, Harry’s or Ethan’s, these simple descriptions seem to get right to the heart of the situation. Even the easy description of the children playing brings an otherwise ordinary scene into sharp, lifelike focus.
One of the themes explored in The Miscreants is the idea of how trauma from our past can affect us in the present. Harry is the embodiment of a young person who cannot heal, cannot come to terms with his past.
The dream feeling was spilling out of him now, leaking from his armpits and throat, filling the car up to its seals. ‘You know what happened to me.’
‘What does it have to do with this?’
‘Everything. You can’t even imagine. In your nice fucking house. I feel like everything I touch gets smeared with shit.’ (27)
Harry’s exchange with his girlfriend shows exactly what he thinks of himself. He feels defined by the trauma of seeing his mother kill herself. He feels tainted by it, like everything he touches will be tainted too. Yet, despite this, Hawkes characterises Harry as active, rather than passive. His drive to find his brother spurs him into travelling across continents to find Ethan, even when the journey almost destroys him.
Place is a character of its own in this novel. We journey from London—Camden and Islington—to Brighton, Canada and Sweden, each rendered in vivid detail by Hawkes. Each place seems to take on its own persona and seemingly mirrors whatever Harry or Ethan are feeling while there. In Brighton, ‘The Palace Pier was bright to his left, the long iron platform jutting half a mile into the sea, its thin legs supporting the improbable bulk of the fairground upon it, the ocean heaving underneath’ (53). It is here in Brighton that Harry discovers that his brother is missing, the landscape around him reflecting not the bright, joyous vivacity of a seaside town, but shifting dangerously under him as his whole world is rocked by this discovery.
Like his brother, Ethan also tries to rewrite his own history in the wake of trauma. Rather than turn to drugs or alcohol like Harry, he comes to believe that he is the son of a cult leader who had a vision of a utopian island where humanity would find safety in the wake of a plague. Gretta, Ethan’s sort-of girlfriend, is actually a child of this man and when she reveals this to Ethan he becomes obsessed with finding his own links to this leader.
Who was he? So much of what he could remember of his mother was her telling him that he was chosen, that he was special, while his brother was just another child […] Flicking through whatever pictures someone had bothered to take, he would find whole years missing, so that he leapt in stature, the school photos the only constant. There was nowhere for him to return and no future for him here. (172)
For Ethan, his disjointed past, his lack of memory, the trauma of losing his mother has all lead to him being unable to define himself, to see a future version of himself. The only thing he can believe is that he was a child of this cult leader, and it is that obsession, that need to be someone, that eventually leads to his downfall. It is a narrative that may not be his own, but the comfort that it brings from filling that gap in his own life leaves the knowledge of what is real or not as irrelevant.
The Miscreants is a beautiful book, full of the raw, basic sense of what it is to be human and in pain. It is dark in places and light in others. It is a story of two boys that is part coming-of-age and part mystery as they seek to find whatever part of them was lost when their mother died. It’s haunting and wonderful, and should be savoured, page by page, word by word.
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.