Education Age, 15th August 2001
By Jo-Ann Stubbings
Jo-Ann Stubbings is the director of translation service Language Australis.

Growing up with attitude

Anne Provoost's Falling is a coming of age novel with a difference.

The adolescent struggling to make sense of a bewildering adult world is a popular theme in literature. Classics such as The Go-Between, My Childhood and The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea share the bitter-sweet experiences of young men coming of age.

In Falling, Anne Provoost joins the throng. Though, set against a backdrop of unemployment and nationalism in Europe, hers is a rites of passage story with attitude. As the title suggests, young narrator Lucas Beigne does more falling than ascending in his quest to grow. The summer holidays see the rapid descent of the teenager - moral, mental and emotional - as he wrestles with wretched family secrets, false friends and unrequited love.

Falling embraces the broad themes of friendship, influence, betrayal and choice, and Provoost chooses as her blank canvas the vulnerable Lucas - "a clean slate with nothing on it yet,'' says Caitlin.

It is this underdeveloped sense of self and tendency to absorb the identity of others that makes Lucas Beigne so malleable. His isolation is emphasised from the outset. He is cut off from friends in the city, his mother barely communicates with him, his grandfather's past remains a mystery - although everyone else seems to know about it.

Silences are the norm and Lucas' ignorance shifts precariously from dangerous dullness to delightful innocence. When Caitlin reveals the wonders of music, he confesses: "I nodded, without having the faintest idea what she meant.''

Lucas in effect looks out on to the world rather than fully interacting with it, recalling events as scenes in a film; he is the camera's eye, his family and friends the actors. Instances of observing others at a distance are many, most notably (in a style reminiscent of Hitchcock's Rear Window) Lucas' unabashed spying on convent activities from a perch in the attic.

Lucas' voyeurism, finally a form of defence following Caitlin's accident, culminates in feverish channel surfing on the television. "They were thought-free hours when I got so absorbed by the rapid progress of different storylines that I forgot my own existence.''

The technique of dual observations exemplifies this self-imposed exile or failure to live in the moment. Critical dialogue with others is punctuated by secondary observations on the weather, a background noise, a stain on the carpet.

Though it steers clear of cliche, there is something of a parable in Falling as our hero is introduced to good and evil through Caitlin and Benoit. These characters are the yin and the yang, freedom versus oppression, peace versus violence, open mindedness versus dogmatism, and it is only when a bond appears to form between the two that the storyline is briefly derailed.

Through Benoit, Provoost reveals the smooth recruitment methods employed by young extremists. The notion of friendship is undermined as Benoit and sidekick Alex systematically seduce Lucas through flattery, favors and the promise of companionship - the so-called enemy (the migrants) never seems as menacing.

Acts of violence against the migrants are dismissed as mere acts of self-preservation and an attempt to maintain the status quo. Benoit explains, as Lucas reverts to his slightly tedious dual observations: "'Look, Lucas, just as a man has to be able to save a life, he must be capable of taking a life.' The vanilla and mocha ice-cream slowly turned liquid.''

If Benoit offers lessons in violence, Caitlin opens the door to peace and free thought. In spite of her exotic image, her dancing and flights of fancy, Caitlin is in fact grounded in reality. It is Caitlin who knows the truth about Lucas' grandfather, and Soeur, and the fate of the Jews in the convent. "What a load of primitive drivel,'' she says when Lucas regurgitates some of Benoit's racist doctrine.

Man-made and natural images pepper the work. Tools are very much a part of Lucas' world. A sharp pruning knife, axes, guns, hairclippers, screwdrivers rolled in the hand - in fact, grandfather's smithy becomes a kind of womb/shelter, significantly burnt down as Lucas comes of age.

But it is the omnipresent chainsaw - one can almost hear it squealing - that looms large. Put to both good and bad ends, (providing wood for the convent, creating havoc in the Cercle), the chainsaw is in effect an extension of Lucas, and almost a character itself.

By contrast, the natural world maintains the balance, humans linked with nature and Caitlin in particular to various bird images, reflecting her beauty, elusiveness and fragility.

At the beginning of the book, actually the end of the story, Lucas reports: "She is sitting up straight, stretching her neck out the way some waterbirds do just before flying off.''

If characters are likened to creatures so inanimate objects are humanised: "... the wooden shutters banged open and shut as if they couldn't make up their mind ... '' Lucas's senses are acute; the world is a complex place.

To build confidence and a sense of self, Lucas needs to make decisions - to defy Benoit, to declare himself to Caitlin. Ironically, when choice is finally forced upon him, it is the rest of society that harbors doubt. In "freeing'' Caitlin from the car, Lucas has in effect clipped her wings. Even the police officer, in whom Lucas trusts, conveniently doubts his final confession.

Caitlin herself confesses too late: "What I liked so much about you ...was your vulnerability...You had doubts about just about everything, and didn't try to hide it.''

Despite the horrors, hope emerges cautiously in the final pages - the television is turned off, the chainsaw is put to good use, Lucas involves himself with the new refugees. Horizons are broadened and even the convent garden takes on a bright and busy feel as Lucas makes his final link between nature and society: "The geese cackle louder than ever. But you get used to their noise.''