Sonya Hartnett’s Surrender is a story split in half – alternating chapters are told from the perspective of 20-year-old Gabriel, dying of an unnamed illness, and from Finnigan, the town wild-child and Gabriel’s only friend.
When the boys first meet, they make an unusual pact. Finnigan makes Gabriel swear not to do ‘bad things’ –
“I’ll do the bad things for you. Then you won’t have to. You can just do good things.”
Although uneasy, Gabriel has quite a long list of grievances and finds something inherently comforting in the pact –
“…I thought about what he was offering – friendship to the friendless, protection to the vulnerable, courage for the weak – and it seemed such a small thing, to exchange a word for this.”
Soon after their meeting, a spate of arson attacks threatens the town of Mulyan. As the fires increase in size and brazenness – beginning with hedges and cars and climaxing with the forest and the library – the people of Mulyan are both terrified and vigilantes.
“There was, naturally, wholesale hysteria. Mulyan had never found itself blessed with so much to seethe about.”
Gabriel realises just how unpredictable and dangerous Finnigan is, however he stays true to their deal. The fires are the first incident of many that tests their friendship and as the story unfolds, we learn of the tragic death of Gabriel’s severely handicapped brother, Vernon; the acquisition of Gabriel’s dog, Surrender; and the meeting of Evangeline, Gabriel’s first love.
“I looked along the aisle and saw her, and it was as if I saw her for the first time. Everything changed. The ancient featureless interior of me spangled orange, mint, cat-blue… Affection makes fools. Always, without exception, love digs a channel that’s sooner or later flooded by the briny water of despair… from the moment I heard her, I was working to minimise the harm. And the first safekeeping rule I made was this: do not tell.”
All of Hartnett’s signature poetic style is evident in Surrender but unlike her more recent novels, the core of the story (and the characters) are elusive. Gabriel is potentially an unreliable narrator and Finnegan is shadowy – he sees everything and yet no one sees him – and his role in the story is as shifty as Hartnett has made his character –
“Finnegan roams unhindered through the valley and town, the midnight raider of kitchens, the sleeper-in-woolsheds, the bareback horse-rider, the bather in rushing streams. He is the dirt under fingernails and the stick of sap on skin.”
The story is studded with symbols and metaphors – Gabriel the angel versus Finnigan the bearer of fire; Gabriel’s cruel father tending his roses as the arson attacks peak; and the dog, a beautiful, faithful hound to Gabriel, but a sheep and goat killer when on patrol with Finnegan. There’s a flip side to almost every element of this dark and harrowing story.
I won’t lie, I felt tricked by the ending – one of those endings that publishers like to think is open to interpretation but that readers think “What just happened?”. Perhaps it’s an ending that deserves a second reading but I did miss Hartnett’s straightforwardness in this instance.
3/5 Dark and disturbing.
Gabriel and Evangeline pick blackberries. I love blackberries and suspect that this Chocolate Meringue Cake with Blackberries would be the bee’s knees.