Telling You How It Feels

Author: Brendan Cowell

Publisher: Pan Macmillian Australia

Year: 2010

RRP: $26.95

How It Feels is a good title for Brendan Cowell’s debut novel, because you’ll seldom find another book that so meticulously, brashly tracks how it feels to grow up.

The novel is told from the perspective of Neil Cronk: a shy, artsy boy in Cronulla who is itching, scratching, dying to get right back out of it, in that idealistic way that kids think they are bigger than the place they come from- in this case, Sydney.  However, Neil has more ties to Cronulla than he can count: his equally outcasted best friend Gordon, his other best friend, popular and attractive surf head Stuart and his beautiful, smart girlfriend Courtney, whose brother Tommy killed himself a few years earlier, and whose family is all but destroyed over it.

The novel returns at regular flag posts in Neil’s life, between him finishing his HSC, his move away from Sydney and his return to Cronulla ten years later. And in that time a lot has changed. One of the gang is famous, two of them are getting married, and one of them is dead (and not to spoil anything but it’s not who you think).

To talk about the tone of the novel is mighty difficult without giving too  much of the plot away because it is so nostalgic- but for a reason. It’s equally as difficult to not give away the ending of the book and almost stupid not to, considering that anyone who picks it up will have pretty well figured it out about halfway in. Not that it matters, because even without a surprise ending its still really compelling stuff. Cowell finishes each of his chapters by introducing a new twist or new idea, which is a kind of cheap theatric in novel writing, but since How It Feels already is based on this reflective kind of confessional, it works as a technique in pulling you through his massive novel.

Furthermore it all works because the book is so damn well clever- and even more so, the more you think about it. The reason for Neil’s inability to get his act together and make things work with Courtney is foreshadowed so many times you couldn’t count it, but Cowell masterfully cloaks these admissions in Aussie vernacular, so they are dismissed rather than given the weight they deserve. Even when, rather obviously, Courtney’s badly traumatized mother refers to Neil as a son, or mentions how much he looks like Tommy, the significance of this to his relationship with Courtney is not realised until the book is well and truly finished (or given a second read).

As a thematic, Tommy’s suicide, along with all the others in the book, is never truly discussed, never addressed, and like in life hangs as a ghost over Cowell’s sea of characters. Whether or not suicide is as frequent in ‘The Shire’ as the book represents is unknown, but the resonation of each individual death, and the eventual blasé attitude in which the subject is broached, stands true and pure like gospel.

The only real criticism would be how much the book relies on sex to be titillating. It could very well be called How It Feels Between his Legs because hardly a page goes by without the work ‘fuck’, especially in reference to Courtney. While this is somewhat addressed by the ending it’s a little tiring, and if the main plotline wasn’t so meaty, you’d probably close the book during one of the very mundane orgies Neil experiences.

It also becomes tiring because, while troubled, Neil is not a very likeable person. He is arrogant and brash, rude and self-centred, which leads to the downfall of so many of the characters in the novel. But depression is, afterall, the selfish disease and in this way Cowell presents a very realistic picture indeed.

And indeed the whole book is. It’s hard not to find Cowell’s novel extremely uncomfortable, just because of how emotionally true to life it is. As someone from Sydney longing to get out of the place and find something else, a lot of what Cowell’s narrator was saying resonated in an eerie way, almost as if it were my own thoughts printed on that page. This is where the book’s core and the book’s hearts lies: because who among us hasn’t wished to just hop on a plane or a bus or a train and never ever come back? Well if you have then this is How It Feels.

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