Denizen is the startling debut novel by award-winning author, James McKenzie Watson. Beautifully written, stark and raw, there were moments of the story that were so shocking, I had to go back to make sure I had understood correctly.
Denizen is the story of Parker, a troubled young man growing up on a remote rural property in New South Wales, Australia. Despite his difficult upbringing, Parker has made a good life for himself in the city, with a budding music career and a loving family of his own. But when Parker returns to his hometown for a camping trip with old friends, he is confronted by many unhappy memories and is forced to deal with unfinished business from the past.
Told in dual timelines, by unreliable narrator, Parker, the story alternates between the present day and Parker as a young boy and adolescent. A bolting horse at a carnival heralds the cataclysmic events about to take place in eight-year-old Parker's life. He is involved in a car crash that leaves his mother with life-changing injuries and then he commits an abhorrent act that shadows him for the rest of his life.
While the two events occur independent of each other, the common thread running through them both is that there is “something wrong” with Parker. Parker is told this on a regular basis by his mother, the local schoolteacher whose schoolmarmish façade hides mental health issues of her own. She and Parker have a volatile relationship with the two of them locked in a never-ending battle of wills.
Parker lives in fear of his abhorrent act being discovered and while it seems he has gotten away with it to the outside world, it continues to haunt his conscience. After he commits his terrible transgression, Parker resolves to keep his darker impulses in check, and grows to become a very circumspect adolescent. His two best friends help get him through his high school years, but as young adults, they all go their separate ways. After spending a long time apart, they organise a camping trip at the place they used to go as teenagers, but it is not the happy reunion they would have hoped for.
Denizen is a dark and disturbing story that gives an intimate perspective on the difficulties faced by people with mental illness in our rural areas. The lack of available services and a culture of forced stoicism prevent people on the land from getting the help they need, which often leads to tragic outcomes. There is a very telling part in the book with Parker’s mother eschewing accessing help for her son’s mental health issues at the local hospital for fear that the denizens of the town would soon know about it. With the city hospitals too far to access, the family struggle alone under the misguided mantra of “she’ll be right.”
A nightmarish story where the lines between reality and delusion are often blurred, Denizen is a superbly written novel that challenges the romanticism Australians hold for life on the land and sheds a very uncomfortable light on a mental health crisis we ignore at our peril.
I listened to the Audable version of Denizen which was wonderfully narrated by Matthew Pearce.