Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Calypso Summer - Jared Thomas

Calypso is into the Caribbean – he’s into Rasta, reggae, Bob Marley, Usain Bolt and the West Indies cricket team. He wears his hair in dreadlocks and no one calls him Kyle, his real name. He’s even convinced his customers at the local health food shop that he’s Jamaican. It’s not surprising Calypso would want to idolise someone like Bob Marley, who, like Calypso, had a black dad and a white mum and grew up poor. (Marley’s dad took off, Calypso’s died.) Calypso reckoned that being a black kid in a white world would be easier if he was cool; being a Rasta provided him with a sense of identity. Run, Calypso’s cousin, on the other hand, hangs out in Calypso’s flat all day smoking ganja (cannabis) – when he’s not out with his mate stealing grog for drug money – as his way of dealing with the challenges of being a blackfella in a predominantly white person’s world.

This is a story about choices, about determination and hope. It is the story of what happens when a young man rediscovers his connection to country, to his mob, and unearths within himself a sense of who he is within his wider family and community. It is also the story of the harsh reality of age-old racial prejudice and the ramifications of its outworking amongst the Indigenous members of modern Australian society. When Calypso’s boss, Gary, at the Henley Beach Health Food and Products Store wants to introduce a new range of native plants for natural remedies, and enlists Calypso’s help to source some from his ‘tribe’, Calypso’s mum suggests he visit his Nukunu family in the Southern Flinders Ranges. The summer starts looking up for Calypso when he meets Clare, a Ngadjuri girl who works at the local hairdressing salon down the street; the two of them join forces to help wager a fair deal between Gary and Calypso’s elders who oversee the land where the plants grow. Festering in the background, however, like a boil about to burst, is the situation with his cousin Run’s covert criminal activities and the possible impact on Calypso’s life.

Calypso Summer is a well-crafted story populated with authentic characters – Calypso is immediately likeable, aptly flawed. The reader is drawn into the lives of each character –Calypso, Clare, Gary, Run, Calypso’s mob – into all the messiness, exuberance, optimism and ordinariness each life affords. The many references to culture add richness and verisimilitude to the text: ‘You see, the Dreaming ain’t just a lot of stories, it’s a way of living, staying connected with country, giving and taking’. Calypso Summer is also a story that dives intrepidly into the swirling waters of drug dependency and petty crime within the Indigenous community. Run’s downward spiral into hopelessness is poignantly contrasted with Calypso’s rediscovery of his roots and the way his connection with country and family help provide him with agency. Punctuated with life lessons, a story that foregrounds the power of acceptance, the potentiality of self-belief and the importance of culture.

Strong language and drug references deem this a book suitable for an older YA audience.

Magabala Books, 2014

(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)


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