Sunday 20 February 2011

Violence 101

Violence 101 by Denis Wright (black dog books)
PB RRP$16.99
ISBN 9781742031781
Reviewed by Vicki Stanton

I began reading Violence 101 with a little trepidation. I am glad to have taken the plunge. This is an extraordinary examination of the mind of a highly intelligent but non-empathetic boy, Hamish Graham, who at 14 has been committed to a juvenile detention centre.

The story is interspersed with large tracts of Hamish’s personal journal entries which reveal his most inner thoughts, interests and recollections. Hamish is a loved child from a middle class family. His idols are all military heroes: Alexander the Great, the New Zealand Victoria Cross recipient (twice) Charles Upham and the Maori warrior Te Rauparaha. Particularly unnerving for me was Hamish’s admiration for the theory of eugenics which espouses the need for mental or physical inferiority to be breed out of the population; a kind of survival of the fittest distorted to fit a particular version of human society.  

It was hard for me to see how Hamish could be rehabilitated. When Hamish’s delusions of military greatness result in a life threatening encounter with what would be an epiphany of sorts to most, he rejects such a revelation outright. Still, following this incident, he is to be released from the juvenile detention centre back into the care of his parents. This outcome made me uneasy and I wasn’t as convinced of his potential as the staff of the centre. With utter clarity, Hamish devised brutal experiments which maimed rats for school projects and killed and played taxidermist to the next-door-neighbours’ poodle. There was only one very brief flicker of emotion throughout the whole story. To me Violence 101’s ultimate underlying theme is can empathy be taught? One I am still pondering.

The book is compulsive reading and Wright’s style is economical and effective. This book is not for the squeamish, but nor does it venerate gratuitous violence. Violence 101 is a thought provoking read and one that will not be easily forgotten.

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