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A sad yet almost-comic depiction of drug abuse: The Rip reviewed

Mark Brandi. Photo/Supplied

Mark Brandi's crime story portrays the delusion and dissipation of drug abuse in urban Australia.

It can be tough for a writer to follow an award-winning debut novel. So expectations will be high for Mark Brandi’s second, after his 2017 Wimmera picked up awards including the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger. The Rip is a coming-of-age story that explores some murky issues. Whereas Wimmera was based in small-town Australia, The Rip takes us into Melbourne junkie-dom.

The setting is convincing. Anton and a nameless female narrator are living in the park, scrounging food from the Salvos or from dumpsters and doing drugs when they can get them – heroin for her and pills for him. The narrator has two best friends: Anton and Sunny the bull terrier. Anton’s out of prison, having killed a guy with a king hit, yet he’s got dreams. He wants them to get a flat and set up a petting zoo.

The pair hook up with a dodgy guy called Steve. He’s a bad influence. Says the narrator: “I’m using more since we’ve been in the flat. It’s funny how quick it happens and without you really noticing. Anton said once it’s like walking out into the sea, and you think everything’s fine and the water’s warm, but when you turn back you’re suddenly miles from shore.”

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There’s also a suspicious smell in the flat. It’s Mary’s place, but it’s obvious that something has happened to Mary.

As you might expect, the characters in The Rip are sad depictions of drug abuse. And yet, curiously, for a crime story, the tone is light, almost comic at times. It’s not a demanding read; I read it practically in one sitting.

Ultimately, it’s a novel with one idea, and you can see that idea coming at you like a train. Yet an odd kind of tension prevails because the naive narrator can’t see it, and this makes for a unique point of view. What is obvious to the reader is masked by the lure of smack. She wants to think good of Steve and their situation because he gives her drugs. Maybe the charm of the novel lies in her naivety, though it’s also slightly annoying.

When she hears news of a murdered pawnbroker, our own credulity is stretched when the narrator doesn’t see the obvious connection between Steve and the killing.

Also irritating is that Brandi hasn’t named his narrator. She is at the centre of this novel, yet remains almost faceless and childlike. Is the author making a point about the anonymity of female junkies? It’s hard to know.

Despite these frustrations, it’s still an empathetic snapshot of life on the margins. The dialogue flies along and we hope that, eventually, the narrator is going to figure out what’s going on and get the hell out of Dodge. Maybe go somewhere nice, such as Wimmera.

The Rip, by Mark Brandi (Hachette, $29.99)

This article was first published in the March 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.