#13: Fall On Me, by Nigel Featherstone

Nigel Featherstone’s Fall On Me is the first of three novellas published by Blemish Books in 2011/2012, and it’s an ideal example of the novella form and what differentiates it from longer novels. From the first few pages, Featherstone takes the reader inside the quotidian routine of Lou Bard, a thirty-eight-year-old café owner and single father; he wakes, “as he has done for as long as he can remember […] alone at dawn”, and as he showers and reflects on everything from his middle-aged body to the act of shaving to his son Luke and to the newly-finished renovations on his shop, we find that we’ve slipped easily into his life and mind, gleaning much about both his present and past from the smallest of details, with questions raised that pique curiosity and keep the pages turning. There are hints at past tragedy in Lou’s emotional state, his closeness with Luke, the absence of Luke’s mother (and the presence of Anna Denham, “their current housemate”). The short first chapter finishes with Lou reading a note left by Luke, and the ending of the note strikes at the beating heart of this carefully-scoped novella-length story:

PS: Be brave, because that’s what I have been, more brave than I’ve been before.

By carefully scoped, I mean that it somehow seems clear from this moment that this will be a story not-quite-broad-enough for a novel but much-too-much for a short story, and that the family life and relationship between Lou and his son Luke will form the central arc, even as external events and social pressures act upon them to force change.

Be brave. This is also, incidentally, the tag-line of Verity La the online literary journal founded by Nigel Featherstone in 2010 and now headed up by Michele Seminara. It’s a tag-line that serves well for the writing they choose to publish, and also for the core themes of Fall On Me. The blurb reveals that “Luke, an intelligent, provocative teenager, decides to risk all by making his body the focus of an art installation”, and as Lou finds out about this and the story unfolds, causing a stir in the small city of Launceston, we also find out about Lou’s past: as a footballer, a bereaved husband, and now as a man living quietly, “dead to the world”. Luke’s adolescent and artistic explorations become the catalyst for Lou’s awakening from the everyday.

Visual art and conceptual art—as in Luke’s installation—have a central place in this book, but so too does the art of music and its links with memory. The title Fall On Me comes from the REM song of the same name, and it’s clear this book is written by a music-lover who understands the role music can play in triggering nostalgia and memory in general:

Lou has only three important elements to his life: his son Luke; the shop, which customers call ‘Lou’s Café’; and the old worker’s cottage in Wellman Street, rented as it may be, but it’s still his and Luke’s home, the only home they’ve ever had. But a fourth—there are days when it’s a close fourth—is his REM collection on vinyl, which he sometimes plays endlessly on repeat in the shop because three years ago he’d found in a second-hand store a record player from the seventies that could do this. He bought the record player because it reminded him of his parents who for the last seventeen years have escaped to the mainland never to return, and the player still reminds him of them, not that he misses them, he’s too old for that, but he does like thinking of his mother and father, the solidness of the history they gave him.

Music functions as a neat device for introducing elements of Lou’s past through his reflective thoughts, and while this is in some sense a quiet, reflective book that knows better than to pace the plot too quickly, Featherstone deftly blends revelations from Lou’s past with the forward momentum that comes as the consequences of Luke’s installation spread throughout the town, and spread they do, with some expected acts of small-mindedness but ultimately a hopeful view on what small-town living can be and the transformative and redemptive role that art can play in both our personal lives and within broader communities at large (with Tasmania on my mind, the changed face of post-MONA Hobart springs up as an example).

There are many more facets explored in this short book, including Lou’s troubled and tender reflections on masculinity and his past and friendship with his old schoolmate, Fergal Harkness (what a name!—if Feargal Sharkey was not an influence here, I’ll eat my book):

Fergal Harkness is never far away, like the memory of a bad deed, a slip up, a fuck up, a clink in your good character.

Fergal says, at one point, “I want to be a fucking protagonist”. Well, not in this book, but maybe in another—and I would read it. While Fergal is a minor character left in the past, his impact on Lou seems significant both before and after the tragedy that left Lou and Luke on their own. There are also some beautiful evocations of place, significant both in the time Lou spent with Fergal on Bruney Island in the past, the mentions of Cataract Gorge, and in the present when Lou and Anna drive out of town.

Fall On Me is the story of a particular family and the past tragedy that ripped it asunder; it’s the story of the closeness between an understanding father and an exceptionally brave and sensitive son; and there’s a love story here, too—multiple love stories, on multiple levels. It is in many ways a quite simple story of family drama, but with a unique set of characters, and it’s superbly executed at the ideal length for a quiet afternoon read. And yet, while you might be able to polish it off in a few hours, there’s every chance the characters will stick with you long beyond that, as they have with me.