How much abuse and neglect is hidden away in suburbia? How many damaged people live among us, perpetuating the violence that has been done to them?
The Promise Seed, a debut novel by Cass Moriarty, cracks open two suburban homes side-by-side on a Brisbane street, to explore complex issues of ‘family’ and ‘home’. There are two entwining narratives–that of a seventy-six-year old man, told in the first person, and that of a ten-year-old boy, told in the third. The old man is the centre of the story, and the reader learns of his life as a boy growing up in rural Queensland, as a young man in Melbourne, and his middle age in Brisbane, to the present day. He has learned bitter lessons along the “long, hard road” of his life.
“There’re people out there merely existing. Scraping by, one day at a time, with such worry and sadness and fury within them that it would kill you to know about it.”
Knowing about it. Having the roofs taken off just two homes does not “kill” the reader, but coming to know the lives of the old man and the boy might hurt.
I need to take a deep breath before I can write about The Promise Seed. I can feel the weight of the boy’s and the old man’s stories. Though they don’t resemble my family’s or those of my acquaintances (though how much do we really know about other people?), their stories are relatable. Can anyone say that their lives might not have been different if someone had nurtured a talent, or provided the right advice at the right time, or turned the other cheek when they’d done something wrong, that they might have been ashamed of?
When is it too late to redeem yourself?
So many questions. This is a book which provokes the reader to look deeply at themselves and their life, to probe and query its trajectory and the stories they tell themselves about the way they were raised and whose responsibility it was to ensure they did the right thing.
The novel might also revise how the reader thinks of parental neglect and child abuse. Their knowledge of child abuse might stem from the headlines, such as the cover-up by the Catholic Church, the stories of survivors of children’s homes, and the news stories when a child dies after years of parental violence and neglect. But only when a child dies. Then they might say, ‘Where was Child Safety?’ Just as the old man in The Promise Seed does.
But how bad does life have to get for a child before there is an intervention? Moriarty does not name her main characters. They could be any old man or boy in the reader’s street. Stories of abuse and neglect simmer below the suburban surface, unreported. These people are caught up in a cycle of violence, as both victim and perpetrator, like the boy’s mother who allows her boyfriend to commit horrific acts against both herself and her son. Both mothers in The Promise Seed commit acts of betrayal against their sons, but in different ways and the reader is left questioning which is the lesser of a range of devils: abandonment, neglect, emotional manipulation, and so on.
Through the old man’s perspective, the reader worries for the boy, for his future, that it might come to resemble the old man’s life, full of disappointments and ‘slaps in the face’, where any happiness is brief. But the old man has awareness enough, borne of the wisdom of old age, to know that it might not be too late for the boy to live a different life, if only he is given “a tendril of hope”. The old man forges a friendship with the boy, sharing gardening, chooks and chess, and a coriander seed. He tells the boy “[t]his seed is bursting with possibility… All it needs is the right environment.”
The seed is “the promise of youth.”
In this novel, the right conditions to nurture hope do not come from the family home environment. ‘Home’ does not represent comfort for the boy–it is a place of danger, his senses on high alert. “With the fine-tuned antennae of prey, he would sense the moment she became distressed or irritable, sense her need to be alone, and he would hightail it outside and go off on his bike for an hour or two.”
In contrast to stories we hear in the media of abuse in children’s institutions, the old man grew up in a Home for “wayward boys” with fond memories of the games, the food, and the adults-in-charge. The boy finds stability with a foster family. Child safety agencies in Australia prioritise the reunification of a child with a biological parent. But as The Promise Seed shows, the better environment might be a foster family, where the child might have some hope of receiving support, guidance and encouragement. Again, the reader is made to question their assumptions that home and family equate with safety.
The novel touches on society’s wariness of strangers, and in particular, friendships between unrelated men and children. As the police tell the old man, such relationships are deemed “unnatural”. Too often, we assume a nefarious agenda is involved rather than the simple truth of the human need for companionship. Think of how stringently foster parents are vetted, and yet, as many a bumper sticker attests, any idiot can have children.
The Promise Seed points to the promise of such friendships between the very old and very young. We do not find out what the “tendril of hope” is that the old man gives to the boy at the end—though we might guess. The terror is that this moment of redemption (for both the boy and the old man) might not have been, if their friendship had not been allowed to flourish.
The old man and the boy’s friendship is nurtured over the course of the novel; at first, each puts out tentative shoots towards one another, and then the two narratives entwine. There are parallels between their lives: “Fathers defined by their absence rather than their presence. Mothering a state of benign neglect.” As the old man reflects on the guilt he has carried his whole life, he knows his past will become the boy’s future, if the boy’s life ‘rolls on’. And it will roll on, and the boy will become a perpetrator unless there is some form of intervention. If only that intervention could be the timely wisdom of an old person, rather than when a child dies.
Moriarty lifts the roof on all of our houses, exposing our assumptions and notions of home and family, making us examine our choices in life and how we treat the humans who live with and around us.
Cass Moriarty, The Promise Seed, University of Queensland Press, 26 August 2015, pb, 304 pp., R.R.P. $29.95