Book review: The Origin of Me by Bernard Gallate

(cover image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

Figuring out who you are, where you belong and what you want to be is tough enough in the teenage years without a whole lot of other, somewhat weird and emotionally taxing stuff being thrown into the chaotic mix.

One fifteen-year-old who can attest to the robust truth of that paragraph is Lincoln Locke, the protagonist of The Origin of Me by Bernard Gallate, a young surfer from Sydney’s northern beaches who finds his world turned upside when his mother and father split and he is forced to spend his weekdays at his father’s bachelor pad in King’s Cross and his weekends back at the family home where his mother and close sister Venn remain.

If that’s not enough, and every teenager out there will be crying out that that’s plenty enough thank you, Lincoln has to figure his way into and through a new school, Crestfield Academy in the eastern suburbs where he is an anomaly in a learning institution filled with gifted and rich kids, many of whom have access to so much privilege and lack of consequences for their actions that they feel free to do whatever comes naturally.

In the case of Lincoln’s swimming teammates that means some passive/aggressive friendship/rejection techniques that leave him if he will ever have actual friends, the kind of people to whom he can he say he belongs and who have his back no matter what.

Turns out he does eventually with Isa and Pericles and Tibor firming into close comrades in arms after a rocky start to proceedings, and proving key to Lincoln dealing with a host of other issues.

“In that moment, the bitter seed of deception embedded itself in my the soft pink tissue of my heart. Till that point in my life I’d been scrupulously honest with my parents, even when they confronted me about smoking grass. And that hadn’t even been pot – just lawn clippings wrapped in a banana leaf, which was more humiliating. It wasn’t so much the act of lying about the letter that bothered me as my father believing the lie.” (P. 7)

That’s right – there’s more on his plate!

Lincoln is battling a nagging voice in his head he christens Homunculus, which is, as you might expect, rather prone to side with the more negative and alarmist of possibilities, and a genetic abnormality that he tries to keep hidden even as it tries to make its presence known and felt at every turn.

That’s a lot of things going on, which all begin to seem all the more difficult to manage when a book Lincoln finds in the library, My One Redeeming Affliction by Edwin Stroud (a late 19th century member of Melinkoff’s Astonishing Assembly of Freaks), begins to find its way into the modern way in oddly magical and disturbing ways.

If that seems like an overwhelming number of narrative balls to juggle but Gallate manages them with aplomb, infusing The Origin of Me with a sense of groundedness and truthful emotional resonance even as some aspects of Lincoln’s life begin to feel like they have sprung unwelcomingly forth from a dream.

If you are one of those people who can remember, with painful precision, what their teenage years were like in all their messy and confusing glory, you will find a tremendous amount to like and relate to in Gallate’s superbly-accomplished debut novel.

Bernard Gallete (image courtesy Penguin Random House Australia)

Lincoln, with all his self-aware honesty, integrity and willingness to tackle the hard things in life, is a joy to read because for all the things he nails such as befriending elderly junkyard dweller Bert who gifts him a retro ’70s bike and a mechanical hen, and working hard to establish friendships with Isa and Pericles and Tibor, he fails badly at relating to his mum and dad until, well, finally, he doesn’t.

He is that marvellously likable of together and very much not, which if you’re honest with yourself, is exactly how the teenage years play out, a series of exciting forward steps matched with excruciating awkward and painful tumbles backwards.

Throughout all of Lincoln’s ups and downs, highs and lows, Gallate winningly portrays him as the most authentic and real of people, someone who is essentially a good person who makes some very bad decisions (in amongst the ones he makes which turn out to be very good indeed.)

The Origin of Me celebrates themes of friendship and belonging, self worth and self-belief, with a heady theme of owning and celebrating who you are even if it flies in the face of mainstream conformity.

Crestfield knows a lot about that kind of mindless fitting in and for a time Lincoln tries to march to that beat of unyielding bland and conformist drum.

But he soon discovers that the people with the most to gain from life, who really live free and authentic lives, are the people, like book author Stroud, Isa and Pericles, and Bert, who dare to stick to their guns and live their lives on their terms.

“My failure with Nicole Parker last year and romantic drought ever since confirmed my lack of proficiency in the art of love, but Dr Eisler’s encouraging words about the possibility of love in the not-too-distant future produced a tiny bit of hope in me.” (P. 210)

Gallate, to his credit, doesn’t pretend that living that kind of self-integrity rich life is easy; in fact, there are many times in The Origin of Me where Lincoln wonders whether it is worth listening to his inner instinct to do the right thing and stay true to himself.

Events prove it is, of course, but the getting there, to that place of acceptance and the kind of flawed happy ending for which life is justly infamous, is strewn with all kinds of stumbles and obstacles, not all of which Lincoln navigates with elegance and grace.

But navigate them he does because at heart, Lincoln is a “good egg”, the sort of person who might get it wrong at first but who learns from his mistakes and increasingly gets it wonderfully and affirmingly right.

If you have ever felt like you were an outlier, someone who doesn’t quite fit with the conformist world around you, The Origin of Me is your novel, your story in ways you will find richly satisfying and and completely truthful.

Packed with richly-observed and vividly-realised characters, an inner sense of the rightness of being true to who you are, no matter the consequences (and again the novel doesn’t pretend this will be a walk in the existential park), The Origin of Me is gloriously funny, magically imaginative, searingly real and wholly affecting, reminding you that while the road to living out your authentic self might be hard, it is ultimately fantastically rewarding, gifting you with a life that mightn’t be easy but which is always full of love, acceptance, wonder and the chance to be a part of something quite extraordinarily and life-changingly different.

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