Review of The Last Week in December
I remember feeling that Ursula Dubosarsky's first book High Hopes was a uniquely promising publication. Her newest and third novel gives even further evidence that hers was "an outstanding debut".
As the last week in December looms closer, Bella's excitement is spoilt by her fear of the events which will take place after Christmas has passed. The character of 11 year old Bella is woundingly credible and engaging. She is the sort of child, on the bring of leaving childhood forever, whom one instantly knows is both breakable and resilient. She is as tough as nails, and as perversely subject to deep-seated angst; impenetrable in her wisdom and her frailty. Dubosarsky's command of her characters is born of observational skills honed to a razor sharp and sometimes disturbing edge. Her witty thoughts are expressed in arresting language, and yet not a word is wasted. Dubosarsky's writing conveys a powerful clarity in a work destined to fall into the canon of classic Australian works for children.
Bella, her parents Nestor and Alice, and her baby sister Lydia, are determinedly anti-social. They yearn for a quiet life only occasionally disturbed by visits from Nestor's English parents. When they decide to set the seal on their removedness from those around them, and move to the country, they find themselves in a state of their ultimate bliss.
Dubosarsky is particularly evocative in the sequences describing their return to this primal state. They are ostensibly free from social pretension, though the author is quick to demonstrate that Bella is unable, like her parents, to drop-out, for she must attend school, and the same conditions apply there as in a large town. However, bella is very adept at "playing the game", and quietly fits in, accepting the overtures of talkative Clare whilst secretly affirming to herself that her parents are very lucky to have a daughter like her and not one like Clare who "would make them all sing Christmas carols and play charades."
There is not an hilarious moment in this book; all the humour is instead, deeply satisfying and apt to occur to you in greater measure after you have read a passage and had time to digest it. There are no cheap or contrived thrills here, but warm, wistful, original writing capable of transporting the reader into the realm of the author's own idiosyncratic evocation of experience.
One of the things I liked about the book was that the author does not take a particular view, and in fact removes herself from the action. Too often, in recent fiction one has been able to feel the author looking over the shoulders of the characters created, and assuming worthy actions and outcomes for them. Dubosarsky is not interested in participating in the action. She is an ironic, questioning observer of life, whose evocation of the child's view of experience seems extraordinarily penetrating and apt, and she allows her characters full rein.
There is a jewel-like, rather haunting quality to this work: only occasionally do I find myself wanting to read a work aloud but the language of this one had that effect. For the much under-nourished pre-teen audience looking for an imaginative, stimulating, satisfying work of fiction, entirely suited to their emotions and interests, you need look no further than this. Ursula Dubosarsky is one of the very few truly original voices speaking to children through literature in Australia today.
Published in Magpies on January 1, 1993.