You have to hope that there isn’t too much of a self portrait in Brendan Cowell’s debut novel How it Feels. A quick check on the ubiquitous Wikipedia and it feels crushingly like Neil, the first person narrator in this story of suburban darkness that sucks out your soul. If Neil’s story is based on Cowell’s own, you have to wonder how he survived it.
Cowell is of course the much beloved actor, screenwriter and director. With the everyman good looks, he is known to audiences for his roles in Noise, Love my Way and Beneath Hill 60. He grew up in the beach suburbs of southern Sydney, the Shire as it is known, a place that is fiercely protective of its own culture. Sylvannia Waters (of 1990s television fame) is in the Shire. So is Cronulla Beach, the location of the race riots of December 2005.
How it Feels starts with Neil, his two mates Stuart and Gordon, and his girlfriend Courtney, celebrating the end of school and contemplating their new adult lives. The scene is set during twelve hours of partying – twelve hours which sees lives changed, love unleashed, virginity lost and secrets buried.
A decade later, one is dead, one is famous, two are getting married and the truth is about to erupt.
How it Feels is not a comfortable read. In fact, I don’t think I have had such a visceral reaction to a book since reading Christos Tsoilkas’ Dead Europe. Having said that, I picked up the proof copy at about 2 this afternoon, and didn’t put it down until I had got to the very last page.
Tsoilkas of course is much better known as the author of the Man Booker prize listed The Slap, which is a busts wide open the complexities of our multicultural inner suburban cities. He is certainly fascinated by our urban psyche and he recently endorsed Fiona McGregor’s Indelible Ink, which centred around a middle aged woman from a wealthy suburb who was finally waking up to possibility. Indelible Ink missed the mark with me. How it Feels is however in another class altogether. This is what Tsoilkas has to say about it.
“ How it Feels is a lacerating, blackly comic novel about the suburban masculine psyche, but it also extends a warmth and understanding to contemporary society that confronted my prejudices and force me to look at the world anew. Cowell’s voice is truthful, without any condescension. A smashing novel – urgent, challenging and humane”.
He is completely correct.
How it Feels is a blowtorch to the belly of the suburban dream. It is an unflinching in its dissection of the ties that bind, and the forces that blow everything apart. Cowell clearly has the voice of the contemporary Australian male, and it is a voice that is howling into the wind.