Recovering from a major surgery that took away his ability to speak, Sam is a young boy without a voice. So when his Aunt Dettie packs up Sam, and his sister Katie, and sets out to drive from Sydney to Perth, Sam is unable to protest. Promised that their estranged father is waiting for them and that their mother isn’t far behind, the kids strap in and ready themselves for a family reunion. But with bush fires on the horizon, and Dettie’s behaviour becoming increasingly erratic and unpredictable, this Australian road trip is set to get more dangerous by the second.
Colin Dray’s debut Sign is a lot less like a horror movie than it sounds. It’s actually quite touching at times as Sam comes to terms with his disability, and starts using the trip as a catalyst to observe and learn new ways to communicate. Whilst the tension does rise (oh does it ever!) as the adult reader senses quickly that something is very wrong, Sam catches up much more gradually. His young age and the fact that his mother and aunt shielded him from the worst of the family’s issues meant that by the time he’s worked things out, my heart had already punched its way out my chest, and I just felt sorry for the poor kid.
At its core, Sign is a story about communication and connection, or the lack thereof – whether it’s Sam and his inability to speak, the adults and their refusal to talk to the kids about what’s really going on, Dettie and her struggles with her mental health, the troubles in Sign all stem from someone being unable or unwilling to express themselves. And the results are often both frustrating and dangerous.
I did feel that the exploration and explanation of Dettie’s mental state was a little tired – an older, uptight, conservative woman losing her place in a more liberal world seems obvious and overdone, nor did it feel particularly sensitive or well researched. Given that it’s viewed through the eyes of a child it’s understandable that her illness is simplified to a degree, but I do feel it leaned dangerously into trope territory, particularly in relation to her gender and the reasons why she loses control. That being said, Dettie is viewed sympathetically, particularly towards the finale, and the veering between the soft, warm aunt, and unhinged menace does make for exciting reading.
A tense Australian road trip, where the title might mean any number of things, Sign is a touching examination of what happens when words fail us.
Sign is available now through Allen & Unwin