John Marsden

 

Tomorrow, When the War Began

Book 1 of The Tomorrow Series

 

I wouldn’t have gone for this book if it was pitched to me: a group of teens laugh, fall in love, and grow up in the context of suddenly having to survive as guerrillas. Yeah, right.

 

But I think Marsden held this together surprisingly well – there are a few strengths to the book (I was about to continue this sentence along the lines of, ‘that explain the popularity of the series’, but there are way too many examples of popularity not reflecting quality).

 

Ahoy – spoilers ahead.

 

I liked the very deliberate way Marsden gave us several chapters of these teenagers simply being recognisable Australian kids. Admittedly he did open with the teaser – the hint of something big and dark – rather than totally selling this as a teen romance/coming of age story before the shocking twist. I could have coped without the early promise of more, but tell me he wasn’t consciously thinking he didn’t want to lose some Year Nine boys before they got to the shooting (‘Is this a kissing book?’). Actually, you don’t have to tell me: he’s totally open about consciously writing for this market in his preface. That being said, he does only hint, and then spends some time on getting his target audience of Oz juveniles to identify with the main characters. Hence the greater potency when their world is changed in a moment. It probably resonates far more with old folks like myself who already subscribe to this notion, but it would be great if even a few complacent Australians were woken up to the fact that wars don’t happen to qualitatively different people – people that you somehow think, you know, them having their homes bombed and being refugees is the sort of thing they just take in their stride. Reminds me of Steely Dan’s potent ‘Third World Man’, where Fagan twists familiar suburban images into those of war, for example, “Johnny’s playroom, is a bunker filled with sand,”  “I saw fireworks, I thought that I was dreaming, ‘til the neighbours came out screaming’” (OK, it works better with Larry Carlton’s exquisite solo). So, sure, hats off to Marsden for putting more of a familiar human face in something usually seen as alien.

 

But once the invasion occurs our plucky kids don’t suddenly morph into a crack military unit (well, they do a bit), nor does the book simply shrink into an ugly Tom Clancy/Chuck Norris jingoistic potboiler. Somehow he keeps the teen (dare I say, the ‘girly’ teen) thing happening: introspection with occasional passable insights (eg. people don’t really see things because they give them names – once something is named – such as the canyon ‘hell’, they only perceive their projections in the misleading word; animals aren’t so easily fooled), and classic – but realistic – boy/girl confusion over infatuation (save me from the appalling romance of just about any fantasy writer: McCaffrey, Kerr, Goodkind, Kay … ugh. A legion of teenage readers swallowing supposedly profound relationships that haven’t a hint of authenticity or beauty). Marsden doesn’t play it for voyeurism, but you do get lines you might expect in Grey’s Anatomy preceding a jet firing missiles. There’s even time for a little historical detection with regard to the enigmatic hermit – who would have thought it? There’s also a usable range of characters with far more depth and room for development than many purportedly adult novels. What? A Christian and a stoner that can’t merely be summed up in those words. Blimey.

 

Realistic? Well, sure it’s a bit of the old villain saying, “We could have succeeded in our evil plans if it wasn’t for you pesky kids!”, and that’s attractive to some of his audience – it makes for a more enjoyable story than the naked realism of fly-ridden bloody corpses. But while he crosses the line here and there Marsden quite deliberately has the kids lower their expectations from movie ones, and will have a hero go into shock after a near miss rather than rip off their shirt and run unscathed through a hail of bullets slaying faceless hordes (this would also be problematic as some of the more central fighters are girls). This is refreshing. While he’s also been careful not to demonise the enemy, I’d be interested to find out if the rest of the series goes as far as the leap to realising the ‘enemy’ may actually have had as little choice as you about being in this dangerous situation.

 

The book is not a breathtaking achievement, but it is a solid one on a hazardous premise. A lot could have gone wrong that didn’t, and there’s a lot that goes right.

 

February 2008