Johnson, Sylvia. Watch out for me

Allen & Unwin, $29.99

On an annual beach holiday, a group of children tell a synchronised lie, with an unforeseen, tragic outcome for a Turkish immigrant. Four decades later, that summer’s events hold sway over the lives of four of the children. Lizzie, besieged in Morocco and hounded by anti-Western mobs, fears she’s replicating youthful cowardice. Hannah, a set designer at Sydney Opera House, is caught up in high security for an international summit. Their brother Richard, once leader of their childhood games, as an adult casts a blurry figure on these pages. Their cousin Toby had joined them on holiday following his mother’s breakdown, to be ultimately bullied by the group. As an adult, Toby returns to Sydney and is drawn into a timely drama. The novel strides confidently towards a cinematic, explosive finale.

Evocative and tensely crafted, this is as much a comment on our present times of international terror as an examination of loss of childhood innocence. Interwoven between vignettes from 1967 and present-day plot are clippings from The Guardian and BBC News about the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London after he was mistaken for a terrorist.

The potential cruelty of a mob of children, the finality of lies, misrepresentation, and misunderstanding, and the ultimate destiny of madness make for wretched, but gripping reading. Some certainly do reap what they sow. This is Johnson’s first novel for adults, and its cinematic feel is obviously informed by her experience as a screenwriter.


Reviewed September 2011