We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson review – a solemn and affectionate coming-of-age

·5 min read

Imagine a novel that a publisher, in their own words, “would walk over broken glass” to release. We Were Not Men is being sold as “the next Boy Swallows Universe” that “punches you in the heart”, by the same publisher that launched Trent Dalton’s juggernaut debut. (Dalton himself adds “gut-punching” and “soul-restoring” to the ledger of ecstatic praise.)

In an industry so dependent on hype (as has been much and recently discussed) you have to find cut-through somehow, but the publicity for Campbell Mattinson’s fiction debut is particularly breathless, with comparisons to Australian heavyweights Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton and Christos Tsiolkas. And there are obvious parallels – evocative scenes of country life and bodily effort, of men who struggle to articulate their inner lives, and channel their grief/rage/ambition through water-based activity (surfing, swimming, fishing etc). But these effusive comparisons distract from an intimate, warm-hearted story.

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Nine-year-old twins Jon and Eden Hardacre are orphaned in a horrifying accident. The novel opens years later, with a scene of fraternal betrayal, then cuts back to chart their story from the night of the crash. Their grandmother Bobbie – courting isolation and alcoholism and still processing the death of her husband, before this unexpected loss – is unprepared for “this parenting caper”. But as the twins grapple with adolescence, vying for athletic and romantic success, a new family is slowly knitted together. Sometimes, Bobbie reminds Jon with one of her frequent aphorisms, “thicker than water” is a choice.

Jon is an introspective and sometimes opaque narrator, less at ease in his skin than the wilder, more independent Eden; both are competitive swimmers, and both are in love with Carmelina, a school friend dealing with her own family damage. In the background, fires rage and adults fail. As the twins face further losses, their own and others’, there’s a sense there is no safe place but for one another, and even that can be taken away.

Things unfold in well-paced vignettes. But over a sprawling 342 pages, the steady rhythm of trauma and incident mutes the emotional impact of the story’s central drama: two boys, divided by love, recovering from loss, trying to save their friendship. Jon’s solemn, self-consciously lyric staccato is similarly flattening – overburdened, after a while, by signals and similes (characters are “like summer”, “a tree”, “fireworks”). It’s an accurate portrait of teenhood, when anxiety – “like a scribble” – renders everything high-stakes. But the book risks losing its more memorable imagery in the noise.

Jon and Eden measure themselves against their dead parents, against an ideal of manhood, against each other, against the stopwatch. Having already divided the world between “the hurt and the unharmed”, they split it again: swimmers and non-swimmers. From Shane Gould to Katie Ledecky, Olympic heroes mark the pages and the boys’ hopes. A portrait of their mother in the pool sits like an icon in Bobbie’s lounge.

The swimming scenes are where Mattinson’s writing flies. In the “cold country creek” at Bobbie’s place in Flowerdale or the outlet channel at the Newport power station, there is catharsis, and furious, physical joy. The reader is propelled through a mosaic of water, light, hard edges and flickering time. “Pent up with story”, the brothers race in sync, outstripping competitors “as a braid”: Eden “almost soundless, a needle through water”; Jon’s “killer instinct” driven by his need not to be “left behind”. “We swam on grief,” he says – and the pair dance between success and self-sabotage. The difference between letting go and giving up is never clear, and Mattinson’s skilful sketching of this is the book’s greatest strength.

As titles go, We Were Not Men makes a strong promise, but ultimately says little on the subject of contemporary masculinity. Though calling to mind Tsiolkas’ Barracuda or Winton’s surfers, Mattinson does not, like those writers, widen his gaze to Australian society or, like Flanagan, to masculine “goodness” or “badness” more broadly. If Bobbie’s musings are provocations (“At some point this country lost its confidence”), they go unanswered; brushes with the wider world are secondary to the domestic psychodrama of the twins, for which Mattinson unfortunately doesn’t appear to trust readers with any subtext. They have “been in a race from the day we were born”, we are told – literally scratching their tally, later, on “the half-finished scoreboard” that their father built on school grounds.

“I was so desperate to be a son and a brother and in turn a man,” says Jon … but what is a man? Here, they appear variously as virtuous athlete, bullying teacher, mourned father, nature enthusiast, violent menace, lonely neighbour (“a battered old diesel engine of a bloke”, conveniently also an ace swim coach). These tropes of Anglo-Australian masculinity are deployed rather than explored, let alone interrogated; most characters, though convincingly and tenderly drawn, are types, not individuals.

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Bobbie, relentless stream of sage non sequiturs aside, is an exception. If there is a coming-of-age story here, it’s hers. Between her booze-inflected jokes (a wink to Mattinson’s career as a wine critic) and her complex about the “daintier side of town” lies the messiness of a real person. Mattinson, who started this novel in 1990, described “a 25-year writing journey to get this character right”, and the boys are at their most vivid when seen through her eyes. Bobbie understands Jon’s complicated bond with Eden better than anyone. “Make yourself into a fish someone would love to catch,” she tells him, gently encouraging him to see himself as more than just “the Other Half” of his twin, managing to be on both their sides.

As is the reader. We Were Not Men is a sympathetic story about the effort and bravery it takes to heal – one that might be better enjoyed out of the shadow of marketing.


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