About the Book:
Sometimes even the best intentions can lead you down a very dangerous road.
Sam is a young boy recovering from an operation that has left him unable to speak ever again. He lives with his mother and sister Katie, all dutifully cared for by Aunt Dettie, their father’s sister, who believes herself sympathetic to his pain.
Their father abandoned the family some time ago, but when their mother begins to date again, Aunt Dettie reacts very badly.
After an unexpected phone call, Aunt Dettie packs Sam and Katie into the backseat of her car and tells them that she’s taking them to Perth to be reunited with their father.
As Dettie drives the children across Australia in the middle of a sweltering and dangerous bushfire season, her behaviour becomes increasingly erratic, and the children begin to realise that there is something very wrong.
Voiceless, Sam can only watch helplessly as the family trip becomes a smoke-filled nightmare.
Shortlisted for the 2015 Vogel’s Literary Award, Sign is a captivating debut novel full of strength, quiet courage and the struggle to overcome silence.
Sign is a novel that quietly creeps up on you, hooks you in and then doesn’t let go until the very last page. Instantly engaging, it’s told from the perspective of Sam, a boy about 11 years old who is recovering from surgery, whereby his voice box was removed as a last resort for curing his cancer. While Sam is in the midst of adjusting to a life without speech, his Aunt Dettie suffers a psychotic episode and kidnaps his younger sister and him, with the intent of driving from Sydney to Perth so that the children can be reunited with their father – her brother – who abandoned them some years ago.
Sign is an exceptional novel. There is an art to writing for adults from a child’s perspective, and it doesn’t always work, but in this case, Colin Dray has absolutely nailed it to perfection. Seeing the story from Sam’s view allowed for a build in tension that quickly spiralled into dread for me. Our view of Dettie and her deterioration was one of childlike confusion at her erratic behaviour, moving into a realisation that her actions and words were no longer making sense within the context of truth that had been provided to Sam and his sister Katie, finally climaxing into terror as Sam realises he is completely at the mercy of his aunt who is acting in a manner that he finds inexplicably frightening. This dread was sustained throughout by Katie’s instinctive refusal to accept her aunt’s word. As Sam observed Katie’s growing defiance to go along with her aunt’s plan, his own doubt was magnified. The utter terror that these two children were feeling was so apparent and I was alternately shocked and dismayed at each point of disintegration of Dettie’s sanity. It was horrifying to contemplate the danger that she was putting these children in.
Not being able to speak offered Sam many opportunities of observation that might not have been open to him previously. Colin Dray has done such a precise analysis of what no longer being able to speak really means. Everything, from that loss of communication through to the perceived disability people now considered Sam to have, was examined throughout the narrative. I have a son who is just a bit older than Sam, and it was extremely difficult for me to not have Sam in my own son’s image while I was reading. I think in many ways this enhanced my appreciation for Sam’s plight, and it certainly ensured my investment in him as an integral character. His sense of responsibility towards Katie was deep and protecting her became a singular focus for him, no small task for a boy who cannot speak and is still recovering from surgery and cancer treatments. But the bravery and honour within Sam were defining characteristics and he seemed to regard these as the opposite of those his father had shown in abandoning the family. I appreciated this immensely, a boy on the cusp of so much choosing his path with unequivocal surety.
The situation with Dettie raises many questions about mental illness within families. Dettie was very much a right hand for Joanne. She loved Sam and Katie, got them to and from school each day while Joanne was at work, and generally helped out as much as she could. But there was an underlying passive aggression to Dettie’s interactions with Joanne, a slight possession over the children that would possibly not have been tolerated had Joanne’s husband still been around. It was impossible for me to blame Joanne in anyway for what eventuated. When you’re dealing with mental illness, there are many things you have to just take at face value. While Dettie was definitely off the charts, I was so sad about her predicament. She truly had no control over her delusions. I can only imagine how devastating it would be to realise down the track, once you were well again, what sort of things you had done to those you loved while literally in the grips of madness.
“Dettie was trapped. She’d set herself on a course that had no ending, and from which there was no turning back.”
The heat, the fear, the helplessness, the mounting dread; the sheer vastness of Australia, a continent stretching across so many terrains, blistering under the summer sun and burning with ferocity. The sense of time and place was so present within this novel, at all times. You were constantly grounded within the setting, no small task given that the setting was always changing as the road trip progressed. But I felt it, as though I was there, the dust, the heat, and later, the choking smoke and falling ash.
Sign deserves all the accolades and all the nominations it can get for literary awards over the coming year. It is just that good. I can see a ripping thriller road trip movie coming out of this novel as well, as long as anyone is brave enough to take it on with empathy rather than sensationalism. Sign is categorised as a literary novel, and it is – with a very accessible delivery, but it also hangs around the edges of being a thriller. It’s one of those novels that everyone can read, of any age really, and I encourage everyone to do so. Colin Dray has crafted a story for our times, a sympathetic and informed portrayal of the impact of mental illness, and the elasticity of family bonds when trust becomes frayed and fear takes precedence. The hope threaded through the ending was a polished way to finish off. Katie’s capacity to forgive her aunt, to allow empathy to outweigh anger, is something we can all draw from. I loved this novel and can’t even begin to recommend it highly enough.
Thanks is extended to Allen & Unwin via for providing me with a copy of Sign for review.
About the Author:
Colin Dray teaches English literature and creative writing. His short fiction has appeared in publications such as Meanjin, and his non-fiction has been published in Australian Literary Studies and Antipodes.
Colin lives in the Illawarra region of NSW with his wife and two daughters.