Book review: Keeping Mum by James Gould-Bourn

Time heals all wounds, so people say.

Quite who these myopically wise people are is never made clear, but in their pithy, not-quite-fully-formed view of the world, they assure anyone who will listen that given enough time that all the hurt, pain, sadness and grief of life will eventually pass away to next to nothing.

Delusionally reassuring, but as many of us know, not really true; someone, actually two someones who know there’s only a half-formed truth tucked inside this fully-formed piece of publicly thrown-around wisdom, are the protagonists of James Gould-Bourn’s Keeping Mum, Danny and his 11-year-old son Will, who fourteen months after her death, aren’t even close to getting over the death of Danny’s wife and Will’s mum, Liz.

Killed in a car crash on an errand she was originally not supposed to be undertaking, Liz was the buoyant, knowledgable, EQ-rich member of the family, the one who seamlessly connected Danny to his son and back again, and who made the world go around in ways it simply cannot manage in her absence.

With Liz cruelly and far too prematurely lost to them, Danny, who works as a builder and isn’t making enough money to make ends meet, and Will, now mute due to grief and the target of bullies at school, his only friend stalwart Mo, are together physically but apart emotionally, two people mired in loss who have no idea how to go on with life in any meaningful fashion.

Healed by time? Not even a little bit and as Danny grapples with losing his job and being evicted, and worse thanks to their thuggish landlord Reg who prefers broken limbs to reasonable negotiation, he fears he’s going to lose Will too, another victim of the darkest period in both their lives.

“‘ Listen to me,’ he [Danny] said, glancing at the overcast sky. ‘I’m standing here, talking to a stone, and I know you can’t hear me because you’re not here. You can’t be here because the sun isn’t shining, which means I am literally talking to a rock right now while you’re out celebrating your birthday without me. So I’ll leave you to it, beautiful. Wherever you are, and whatever you’re doing, I hope you’re smiling, and I hope you’re dancing. Just try not to wake me up when you get home, OK?’

Danny touched his lips and placed his fingers on the headstone.

‘Love you Liz. Happy birthday.'” (PP. 23-24)

Quite how you solve such a messy, abyss-like emotional conundrum is neither straightforward or certain but as Danny tries to figure out the big what-nexts and how he can keep a close relationship with Will part of it, life happens anyway.

Desperate for an employment option, Danny decides to become a dancing panda in a very smelly rented costume, performing at a local park where he becomes friends with fellow Tim and his cat Milton, enemies of egotistical street magician El Magnifico (who proves that the more hyperbolic the name, the poorer the act) and the confidante of a sad, confused and broken 11-year-old boy – his son Will.

Will, of course, has no idea it’s his dad in the costume – they communicate with Will talking and Danny writing notes, all part of the mystic street panda persona he explains to a sceptical but bemused boy – and Danny is happy to keep it that way, delighted beyond belief to be back in communication with his son.

As Danny continues on his wholly unexpected new career, and his precious conversations with Will, he begins to understand that maybe time doesn’t heal so much as simply making living with the wounds easier than it was.

James Gould-Bourn (image courtesy Hachette Australia / Photograph by Vanessa Valentino)

Into this new reality, which includes Danny’s old workmate and friend, Ukrainian Ivan and his wife Ivana who is softer inside than he ever lets on, comes pole dance Krystal, someone who initially mocks Danny’s act before agreeing, extremely reluctantly to coach him at dancing at which he is actually quite bad.

Like, really, REALLY bad.

He is nothing like his much-missed wife Liz who was an exuberant dancer, classically trained in ballet and happy to dance across an empty studio when no one was watching just for the sheer fun of it, and who adored Dirty Dancing, a film Danny profoundly regrets not watching with her despite numerous invitations to do so.

But with grit and determination, and Reg’s ever-present threats to push him on, not to mention wanting to give Will a rich and wonderful life, whatever his failings as a dad, Danny comes alive as a dancer, a father and a friend, discovering in the process that maybe life isn’t done with him and Will yet.

Keeping Mum is that rare and treasured meditation on grief, a novel which doesn’t shirk from portraying the grim realities of loss and grief, and wholesale emotional havoc they create, but which offers hope that maybe, just maybe, there is a way forward that doesn’t rely on heeding the dubious advice of folk wisdom.

In amongst all the relational dislocation and crushing uncertainty about what life should look like when the person you love the most has horrifically vanished from it, Keeping Mum poignantly meditates with wit and real insight on what a life post-grief, or rather post the immediate messy aftermath of it, might look like.

“‘You do know you’re not a real panda, right?’ said Will, sliding off the bench and throwing his bag over his shoulder.

‘Have you ever actually seen a panda in real life?’

‘No.’

‘Well, then.’ wrote Danny.

Will smiled. ‘Whatever you say, panda-man-who-isn’t-actually-a-panda. See you around.’

‘See you around, not-talking-boy-who-actually-talks,’ scribbled Danny.” (P. 200)

It is, in a couple of words, charmingly wonderful.

Bringing together one of those found-family villages that we all need around us, particularly when relying on our emotional nous is unlikely to get us through, Keeping Mum is a delight, a story grounded in life’s harsh realities but which knows that light actually does follow dark, just not quite how you expected it to.

In this wonderful story of reconnection and renewed belonging, where bullies may not be as fearsome as they seem and everyone has a salient life lesson to learn, even when stuck inside a puke-stained panda suit (long but entertaining tale), we are privy to the fun, silly, moving, affecting joy of Danny finding Will, and Will finding him right back in the most unique and entirely unenvisaged of circumstances.

Time may not heal all wounds quite like the corner store prognosticators might think, but with the right people, the weirdest of life twists and some openness to the world looking completely different to what you expected, it can definitely make things better, which is what happens in Keeping Mum, a gloriously nuanced, funny and sweet story of life healing itself and bringing you along with it.

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