Saturday 4 February 2012


Bluefish by Pat Schmatz (Walker Books)
HC RRP $24.95
ISBN 9780763653347
Reviewed by Anastasia Gonis

Travis carries secrets. They are bottled up and twisted with his anger. Therefore he is a boy of few words. He’s bitter, lonely and has just started another dreaded year at a new school. On the first day he goes out shortly after going in. Travis is also suffering from grief and loss, of which we have no inkling of till well into the story.

He lives with his grandfather who is also a man of few words that always cut the air and end too soon. Grandpa has just started AA, chain-smokes, and works at the local bakery to keep food in their stomaches.

Velveeta also has  secrets. Some that are never exposed but at which the reader can guess through the absence of attention to her fears.  Reasons for her existential problems become known to us through letters that she writes to her old friend Calvin, who has recently died and left her his wife’s scarves. These scarves are the emblem of her belonging to someone and something. Each day she wears a different one. She copes with her grief by utilising her observant eye and astute mind. These she converts into sharp talk with a flippant attitude. Her isolation is compounded by her mother’s inability to sever ties with an alcoholic partner and take control of her life.

The third young central character is Whistler. He is short, wears braces and glasses, is always being bullied and cannot overcome his fears. Yet he has an optimistic view of life, nurtured by a loving family which is absent in the other two young people lives. 

These three outsiders merge to form a circle of friendship and support in a subtle and slow fashion; feeling their way towards acceptance and the need for one another.

The pivotal role is claimed by the dedicated teacher Mr McQueen who quickly identifies the main cause of Travis’ withdrawal. It is his gentle and matter-of-fact manner that indirectly steers the boy and Velveeta toward change.

This is definitely a character-based novel. It’s moving, multi-themed and layered within perfect prose. Its minimal and direct style complements the beauty of the language which distils the themes, and the emotions of the exceptional characters. It is about surviving loneliness, loss and grief, and learning how to live with it all. It is also about the  great well of potential that each person has inside them, which often only surfaces when acknowleged, encouraged and supported by others.

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