An elderly man, living alone in the suburbs, thinks back on his life - the missed opportunities, the shocking betrayals, the rare moments of joy. When his ten-year-old neighbour hides in his garden one afternoon, they begin an unexpected friendship that offers a reprieve from their individual struggles. The boy, often left on his own by his mother, finds solace in gardening and playing chess with his new friend, who is still battling the demons of his past.
As a sinister figure enters the boy's life, he must choose between a burgeoning friendship and blood ties. Can the old man protect the boy he has come to know - and redeem the boy he once was?
I read ‘The Promise Seed’ over six months ago and it’s a testament to the strength of Cass Moriarty’s writing that so much of it is still with me. It’s no surprise it was shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award at the Queensland Literary Awards in 2016. It is a masterful, moving and ultimately life affirming novel about the hope found through chosen families. It concerns an old man living next door to a young boy with a difficult home life and their growing friendship. It’s about impacts outside of our control and coping with life choices foisted on you.
The characters are nameless, a Brechtian device that highlights both the character's ‘roles’ and the sad fact that while this is 'their story', it is a story tragically echoed in the lives of many others. It is principally the story of the friendship between the Old Man and the Boy, but has there ever been a more aptly named character than ‘Snake’?
‘The Promise Seed’ is about difficult subjects: child, institutional and elder abuse, and system failure. However, to counter the heavy subject matter, Moriarty cleverly injects a language or renewal through seasonal change, growth, replenishing and rebirth in both the literal ‘seed’ and the chickens and the symbolic 'seeds' or skills the old man also shares with the boy. This imagery and the associated narrative tangents gives welcome relief to the reader from the spiraling unravelling of the boy’s home life.
The old man teaches the boy both another way to be as an adult (an alternative to the life foisted on him by his mother’s bad choices) and a set of skills to find peace and solace, a calm place away from the horrors of his home life.
Moriarty deploys beautiful prose especially in her depiction of the natural world and the renewal of the man’s garden and chickens. This beauty acts a balm to the reader and as a rest point in between the depicting of the grim realities of both childhoods: the old man’s in the past and the boy’s in the here and now.
The depth of research Moriarty employed to understand how the social services system operates / fails in these cases is clear and well depicted which adds a further layer of strength to the novel. It is a story of these characters but also the story of thousands of others who have been interviewed by principals, police, social workers, and all the other stops along the intervention and monitoring chain.
The simple die-cut cover design evokes the age old wisdom and parable nature of the novel.
I can’t wait to read Cass Moriarty’s next book, ‘Parting Words’ which comes out in August this year. I will do that review immediately.
Review by Sarah Ridout, 'Le Chateau', Echo Publishing, 2016