This article appeared in Viewpoint at about the time Lost Property was released.
At the end of 2000, I took a few moments to look around, to smell the roses, you might say. Somehow I’d made a successful transition from being a teacher-librarian who wrote books as a hobby, to life as a full-time writer with seven YA novel to my name. It occurred to me that YA was not the only genre and that I needed wider challenges to stay fresh. The result of challenging myself in this way has been a comic novel (Black Taxi), a fantasy (The Book of Lies), a five-part adventure series (The Doomsday Rats) and sundry stories in Penguin’s wonderful ‘Aussie’ series. It’s been fun, but the pull of YA has never slackened and October 2005 sees the release of Lost Property.
What is Lost Property about? In part, at least, it’s about something that doesn’t get much of a run in fiction for adolescents. When I took a Christmas job in a factory years ago, an old sage informed me that work mates never talked about two things – how much you earned and God. The former was to avoid embarrassing comparisons, but the latter was simply to avoid embarrassment in general, that cringing discomfort that often accompanies discussion of religious belief. Like factories, Australian society only ever whispers the word God, preferably in private and between consenting adults. Go on, name an Australian YA novel where he gets a guernsey. Yet, at the same time, up to a third of Australia’s young people are educated in schools professing a religious basis and more Australian’s than not claim belief in some kind of creator/deity.
One of the things my protagonist, Josh Tambling has lost in Lost Property, is his religious faith. He hasn’t done what a lot of young adults do, which is drift away from the practice of his faith through indifference without actually surrendering basic belief. Josh isn’t indifferent about anything, except perhaps his unfortunate girlfriend, Alicia. No, his atheism has come about only after some deeply conscious searching and wondering. In fact, one of the first things you learn about Josh is that he is starting to use his intelligent mind after many years of just muddling along, happily, comfortably. It’s been a pretty easy ride for this nice boy from Sydney’s leafy south-eastern suburbs.
But Josh’s creation of himself as a human being has been built more solidly on his spirituality than he realises. He’s vaguely aware of feeling empty at his core and he doesn’t like it. His need to replace that sense of the spiritual with something that means just as much lies at the heart of this novel.
But it doesn’t provide the major story line. Where I worked in a factory, Josh has landed a holiday job in the Lost Property Office at Sydney’s Central Station. The research was fascinating. Did you know that people have actually left prosthetic legs on board trains. (No, I can’t work out how, either.) The LPO’s boss is Clive, an otherwise unremarkable gent in shorts and long socks whose understated humanity is misread by Josh, leading to an unwitting act of betrayal. Little harm is done and Clive’s forgiveness is easily bestowed – too easily for Josh. Suddenly Clive has shown Josh a glimpse of the ‘good man’ he needs to feel inside himself. The boy tries to borrow Clive’s odd way of bringing a little happiness into the lives of others and a sense of meaning into his own, but succeeds only in humiliating himself.
In a crucial scene, Josh rides Sydney’s late night trains searching frantically for what other people have accidentally left behind until he ends up on a deserted platform, staring up at the infinity of the stars, utterly alone, spiritually bereft and still unaware of the metaphoric nature of his searching – that it’s what is lost within in him that he’s searching for.
However it is among Clive’s special hoard of lost items that Josh discovers a clue to the whereabouts of his estranged brother, Michael. Years ago I shared a car journey with a man who told me of how he had forced his twenty year-old son to leave home in an attempt to shake the young man out of his lethargy. I was stunned by the risk the man had taken and intrigued by the heartache, the fortitude and the cool-headed calculation that must have played a part in that father’s action. I’ve borrowed this story and explored those factors in the character of Josh’s father who has done the same thing to the absent Michael.
Much of the second half of Lost Property follows Josh on his ill-fated journey to Queensland to reclaim his family’s lost sheep. Pick other biblical references, if you feel inclined. At one point Josh steals food from (metaphorical) pigs, like the prodigal son was forced to do after his inheritance ran out, but why does Josh end up destitute. Isn’t he the good son?
In choosing the surname, Tambling, I recycled a name from the first book I ever tried to write. It was called Hammer on the Tamtam and it was about … well, you don’t want to know. I was only 21 then, it was an adult novel heavily derivative of Graham Greene, but in recent weeks, with Lost Property long since completed, I’ve remembered that this other Tambling character also went on a journey to north Queensland. He was seeking something unnamed but basically spiritual and since I never got passed the third chapter you might say that he came away with nothing. Josh goes to get his brother and the success or otherwise of that trip is something you’ll have to find out for yourself, but perhaps he ends up finding what my earlier character went looking for but never found.
So far I haven’t said a thing yet about Gemma, the girl Josh falls in love with, or Alicia, his girlfriend – yes, they are two different people. I haven’t told you about Josh’s band, - he’s the singer and one song in particular helps him establish who he really is. That same song becomes a bridge between Josh and his father and if there is one character I’d like to draw out before finishing, it’s Mr Tambling.
Fathers haven’t had much of a go in a lot of YA fiction. They shoot their sons, throw acid in the face of their wives, stalk their families, or ignore them altogether. I’ve certainly given them a hard time in books such as Crossfire, Swashbuckler and The House on River Terrace – and that’s when they were present at all, unlike in Dougy, Gracey and A Bridge to Wiseman’s Cove.
Josh Tambling’s father is different. If any one in the story had a background ripe for dysfunction, it’s Mr Tambling, yet I hope he comes across as a man worthy of the greatest respect. My creation of him borrows, in part, from an episode of the ABC’s Australian Story which featured Brisbane Broncos coach Wayne Bennett. Bennett has two disabled children and anyone who saw the program would have been impressed, as I was, at what an exceptional father he is. In Lost Property, Josh has come to revere his father as almost a God-like figure yet the events in the story reveal just how fallible the man is, how human, as he makes the difficult, risky and controversial decisions that he does.
I look forward to the way readers respond to Mr Tambling, to Josh and to the story I’ve built around them, Lost Property.