Some books keep you enthralled from the moment you read the opening paragraph. You are transported so deftly into another world, there is a reluctance to leave. The Comet Box is such a book. Adrian Stirling creates the suburban setting of Merton, easily recognisable as any small Australian community, replete with characters that populate our everyday lives, and thrusts us straight into a mystery.
It is 1986. Andrew thinks he knows everything about Merton and its inhabitants until one day his sister runs away from home. It turns his world upside down. Amelia has gone and everyone except Andrew seems to know why. Then, when she is found and brought home against her will, even Amelia – uncommunicative and sequestered – is more intent on injecting misery into the family than revealing the truth to her brother. The world as Andrew knows it begins to unravel and spiral downwards into a vortex of secrets, lies and unhappiness. By degrees, as he stumbles upon the truth, his fourteen-year-old worldview begins to shatter; he makes the distressing discovery that uncovering what someone has gone to great lengths to hide can sometimes have unexpected and unbearably weighty consequences. In Andrew’s crumbling world, the only thing to look forward to, to keep hope alive, is the arrival of Halley’s Comet.
This is a compelling coming-of-age story, unswerving in its treatment of human frailty and fallibility. Stirling is not afraid to subject his young adult readers to the brutality, pain and messiness of relationships. When Andrew discovers what really goes on in his own family and behind the doors of his neighbours, it rocks his equilibrium. Once a secret is revealed, there is no burying it again. He learns that uncovering the truth may not always be the wisest option.
There are no two ways about it: this book is dark. Take, for instance, the characterisation of the troubled Amelia, which verges on horror, and the unmitigated portrayal of a son made to drink beer and watch pornography with his loathsome father. There is domestic violence, there is bullying and there is desperation and sadness.
The Comet Box is full of symbolism with the hot, languid days; the darkness of the underground pipes; Andrew’s friend being called Romeo; the contents of the comet box and all it reveals about the families of Merton; and even the anticipation of Halley’s Comet itself, hurtling through space with its blazing tail.
I found this book to be gripping, well-written and compelling, though somewhat enervating in its sense of deepening desolation. Especially into the second half of the book, I was looking for sunnier moments, but they are few and far between. There are moments of humour, but these, too, are dark.
Recommended if you don’t mind an intense read that doesn’t shy away from negotiating the shabby side of the human condition. If you’re looking for an uplifting read with lots of laughs, try something else.