Book Review: Everybody Jam by Ali Lewis

Danny Dawson lives in the middle of the Australian outback. His older brother Jonny was killed in an accident last year but no-one ever talks about it.
And now it’s time for the annual muster. The biggest event of the year on the cattle station, and a time to sort the men from the boys. But this year things will be different: because Jonny’s gone and Danny’s determined to prove he can fill his brother’s shoes; because their fourteen-year-old sister is pregnant; because it’s getting hotter and hotter and the rains won’t come; because cracks are beginning to show . . .
When Danny’s mum admits she can’t cope, the family hires a housegirl to help out – a wide-eyed English backpacker. She doesn’t have a clue what she’s let herself in for. And neither do they. (From publishers site)
The first thing to say about this book is that it is so authentic in language it will have you reading in an Australian accent (albeit not a very good one from me) From the very first page the character of thirteen year old Danny Dawson is so expertly crafted, reading his story is like actually becoming him for a while.
And what a fantastic character Danny is. Brought up on an isolated outback cattle station, he’s undergoing a period of intense change both within himself as he grows from child to man and within his own family. His older brother Jonny died in a tragic accident last year, and the family are clearly traumatised but don’t talk about leaving Danny confused and lonely. His Fourteen-year-old sister is pregnant, adding further stress to the family and baffling Danny even more. Everything he knows is changing and no-ones talking, so he’s left to try and work it all out alone. The dynamics Ali Lewis creates within this broken family are painfully believable and raw and I found myself caring for all of them deeply, wishing they would reach out a little to each other.
When the hired English house girl, Liz, or The Pommie as she’s called, arrives things take an interesting turn. She’s from suburban England and hasn’t a clue about life in the Australian desert or working on a cattle ranch. There were hilarious scenes as she adapts to life on the station, she’s dizzy, skinny and weak and a vegetarian. But the developing friendship between Danny and Liz was so sweet as she became the friend he desperately needed. At the back, British born Ali Lewis explains the inspiration for the book was due to spending a month as a house girl on a cattle ranch during muster, and it’s clear how the experience created a lasted impression on her. 
I knew very little about life on a cattle ranch in the outback until reading this book and found the details fascinating. It’s not always pleasant, Lewis doesn’t shy away from showing the harsh and brutal side of rearing cattle and at times I was cringing and shocked, much like Liz.  One thing the author does get across is how tough a life this is, and all the people had my absolute respect. I have no idea when Everybody Jam is set, it’s kind of timeless in a way and could have been anywhere in the last fifty years. The attitudes in particular seem dated, but then this is an isolated life where your neighbours are fifty miles away and the nearest town is a four-hour drive.
The book is written in the first person from Danny and as I mentioned above is incredibly authentic and believable. The one difficulty I found with the style of writing was it at times felt a little stilted and didn’t flow well. While I enjoyed reading Danny’s story, this wasn’t a book I could sail through easily. If you’re looking for a quick, easy read then I wouldn’t recommend this book. I would however recommend it as a book worth reading and that little extra effort is certainly worth it for the wonderful story and insight into a fascinating life. There are also some pretty graphic scenes of death to the cattle and talk of sex, so it probably is suited to over Twelve year olds and not to the extremely squeemish.

Everybody Jam covers many issues within it’s 300 pages including teen pregnancy, racism, death and bereavement. But most of all this is a Danny’s coming of age story, about a young boy who struggles between wanting to be a man and being involved with the hard work of the muster and the childish feelings he can’t quite suppress. A boy confused about the trauma’s his family have endured but doesn’t know who to talk to about it. An emotional, thought provoking and completely involving book, it’s funny and sad, beautiful and brutal; one I’m glad I had the opportunity to read. 

Published by Andersen Press March 2011
Thanks to the publishers for providing me with a copy for review.

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