Southern Aurora is Mark Brandi’s fourth novel, and follows on the heels of the bestseller Wimmera (2017), The Rip (2019) and The Others (2021). Wimmera secured Brandi the coveted British Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger and was also named Best Debut at the 2018 Australian Indie Book Awards. It was also shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards Literary Fiction Book of the Year, and the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year.
Mark Brandi was born in Italy and grew up in rural Victoria. He is currently living in Melbourne and working on his fifth novel. After having read Southern Aurora, I’m already looking forward to it.
Very early in the novel Brandi impressed me with his ability to nail a character in just a few words. The wise Nan that only reads magazines, the troublemaker big brother both feared and admired, and the disabled child trapped in his own quiet world. All Brandi’s characters come to life through his chosen narrator, eleven year old Jimmy from Mittigunda. Brandi is no stranger to the child’s voice, it’s something he has mastered and been praised for in previous works such as Wimmera and The Others.
The novel’s setting lands powerfully as well. A very hot, very isolated, very Australian small town right in the middle of nowhere. You can already feel the dry sun, sand and awkward silences three pages in.
Southern Aurora touches themes such as domestic violence, poverty, class, autism and addiction all in a lightweight tone that turns what could have been a rather dark story into an easy read. Jimmy’s heartbreaking positivity allows him to see his alcoholic mother looking like a movie star in her big sunnies from the chemist. Or it allows him to truly believe that winning a billycart race will solve all the problems of his rough upbringing. The novel’s story is at once the innocence of childhood in full beauty, and its devastating consequence – having to grow up into the real world.
Though moving and well-crafted, Brandi’s novel is not for everyone. Two hundred and sixty five pages from the eyes of a child is not a one-sit-read. The perspective also leaves so much unsaid, which can be frustrating at times. Though you do have to appreciate the art of it.
What I liked the most about Jimmy’s story is the heartwarming kindness that follows his every step in an otherwise very brutal world. In Mittigunda, the Milk Bar owner’s teenage daughter gives discounts to the poor kids in town, the upper-class Mrs Chadwick’s volunteers to look after Jimmy’s autistic brother for him to have some playtime and the elderly bus driver Don heroically comes to the rescue of a woman under attack in the middle of the night. Kindness in Southern Aurora knows no age or class limitations making the novel feel like an incredibly optimistic tragedy.