This review was written by Cynthia Haskell, a member of the Tuesday Evening Book Club.

Published in 2010, Rocks in the Belly is the first novel by Jon Bauer and won Best Debut Novel at Australia's 2011 Indie Awards. Born in England, Jon, now has Australian permanent residency.

Unlike me, most of my fellow Mosman Library Book Club members did not warm to this novel, or to put it more correctly, did not warm to the main character. However, as Man Booker Prize winning author, humourist and Independent columnist, Howard Jacobson recently commented on ABC's Lateline, often reading groups and literary critics denigrate a book because they don't  like the hero. Jacobson failed to understand this phenonmenon as no-one rejected Shakespeare's Macbeth or Lear because they didn't like the characters on the grounds that they weren't nice! An even bigger sin, in Jacobson's eyes, were remarks such as " I can't identify with the hero or heroine". He postulated that this was the beauty of the novel, that it allowed the reader to encounter people so unlike them, and opened a window into experiences and feelings nothing like their own.

This is exactly the case with Bauer's novel. The protagonist is a male, who, as a child, felt emotionally abandoned and neglected by his mother. She and her husband regularly took in foster children. However, it is not until the arrival of foster child Robert, that the main character's issues really start to kick in, as unlike the rather stereotypical troubled children usually taken in by the family, Robert is angelic paragon of virtue and receives special treatment, especially from the mother. The main character resents this and starts to "act out" by self-harming and sniffing substances, and to become violent towards Robert and others. These traits carry on into adulthood. Interestingly, Bauer does not give the main character a name, a clever, literary device which futher depicts his alienation.

Written from two points of view, the protagonist as a child, and as an adult returniing home to his dying mother. Bauer's prose is truly beautiful and I didn't want to skip over any of his rich description. He also manages to get inside a child's head so well, as evidenced by this example: " I look from the front door in its rotting frame, up to the clouds. I had my childhood under this bit of sky with its fairy-floss athelets, white rabbits and all the other bulbous shapes that floated by on inviisible air streams. The Lock Ness Monster came by once." (This latter sentence gives a clue that the novel is probably set in the UK, but this is unimportant to the story.)  A few scenes are quite horrific and Bauer creates suspense so well in places, that I felt I was watching a Hitchcock movie.

To conclude, this dark novel not only touches upon the concept of childhood issues causing psychological disorders, but also upon the dysfunctionality of families, from denial by the father of a problem in his marriage, and the unresolved grief of the mother. It is not until the denouement that I realised why the novel was called Rocks in the Belly.  I urge you to read it.

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What a great review! I thoroughly agree, this is a brilliantly written, complex and enthralling first novel. And yes the main character is a flawed, unstable and unlikable young man but that's what makes him real and for me the mark of good novelist is being able to bring a character to life faults and all. Whether you like them or not should have no bearing on whether you liked the book. Character construction is far more important and for me this character was well constructed.

Here's the interview with Howard Jacobson for those who are interes...



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