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After Battersea Park

by Jonathan Bennett

You have to admire first-time novelist Jonathan Bennett for resisting the literary hijinks and punchlines inherent in telling the story of twins separated at birth – or, in this case, separated at age four. Instead, After Battersea Park unobtrusively follows the narrative tracks of Curt’s and William’s lives, beginning with their separation from their biological parents – and each other – through an emotionally tense family reunion after the death of Curt’s adoptive mother.

The scenario is not as unlikely as it sounds. In the 1960s, Jilly, a young Australian woman on her first trip abroad, and Noah, a half-native Hawaiian far from home, meet and fall in love in London, England. Jilly gives birth to twins and the family quickly descends into poverty, fuelled by Noah’s heroin addiction, until it becomes obvious that the couple cannot care for their sons. Again, it’s interesting what Bennett chooses not to focus on. The reader is spared the excesses of domestic disintegration and sexy descriptions of rusty needles digging for veins. There is a tenderness here, and a respect for the characters.

This is not to say that After Battersea Park is without artifice or technique. Bennett is a skilled enough writer to vary cadence and rhythm, slipping from an almost documentary style into a convincing lyricism when the situation demands. On a symbolic level, one of the brothers can be read as an embodiment of emotion, and the other of intellect – two halves of a sundered whole – but the text never insists on such an interpretation. Bennett also allows the obvious parallels between two mulatto boys growing up in two of England’s whitest ex-colonies, Canada and Australia, to slowly accumulate in the reader’s mind.