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Review: Violence 101 by Denis Wright

violence 101 denis wright Review: Violence 101 by Denis Wright


Violence is one of those things that is as fascinating as it as abject. Violence, its nature, and its causes have been mused upon throughout literature and the arts more generally, with authors striving to paint a picture of those who commit abominable acts. One thing that particularly intrigues is the association of violence with intelligence: violence is somehow associated with a heightened position, with power, with dominance. 'Violence 101 brings together all of these, but in a curious way that draws on the traditions of A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, and'even Flowers for Algernon.

Hamish Graham has just been transferred to the New Horizons Boys Home after a series of violent incidents at his previous schools and institutions. The staff are appalled by his challenging background, but simultaneously find their interest piqued by this young boy. Hamish is articulate, able to reflect on his actions, and almost terrifyingly pragmatic. His past misdemeanours include everything from belittling a counsellor to the point of tears to slaughtering a neighbours poodle out ofwere toldpure scientific interest to being responsible for the death of an elderly man, something about which hes not in the least remorseful.

Like Eliza in Shirley Marrs Fury (see my review), Hamish comes from a privileged background, and is quick to point out that his behavioural patterns are not influenced by his parents efforts. Like most of those in Hamishs life, his parents are simply a means to an end: they are simply a facilitating force enabling Hamish to go about his studies and experiments, many of which are cruel enough that Pavlov would balk.

Interestingly, when Hamish settles into his new institution, he becomes an experiment himself, with his therapy taking the form of a series of mandatory journal entries in which he is asked to describe his past, his behaviours, and his motivations. But despite Hamishs apparent capacity for self-reflection, he finds the task a difficult one, veering off instead into rather creepy screeds about his personal heroes: Alexander the Great, Charles Upham, and Te Rauparaha, none of whom are likely to have been awarded a medal for their efforts towards peace. When Hamish is asked to turn his rants back to himself, he rails against his mentors and counsellors, asserting that they lack the mental capacity to understand him. Indeed, his accounts of his past actions are disturbingly rational and entirely matter-of-fact, but one cant help whether its the case that he truly lacks the ability to empathise with others, or whether he simply prefers to position himself as such.

Indeed, any action that Hamish takes is ostensibly done under the auspices of proving himself superior to others. His efforts to ingratiate himself with the other boys at the institution all involve demonstrations of his own power and perspicacity, while his interactions with his teachers and counsellors all involve political and power positioning. However, just like Charlie in Flowers for Algernon, Hamishs apparently superlative intelligence isnt quite the boon that it seems, and like Charlie, he finds himself increasingly on the outer, increasingly lost in his own self.

Unfortunately, while the novel starts strong and remains thus throughout the vast majority of its pages, things take a weaker turn towards the end. Even Dostoyevsky cant write a doom-and-gloom narrative that doesnt end with at least an effort towards perdition, and neither, it seems, can Wright. A series of events sees Hamish begin to reflect on his role as an individual, and he sets out on a journey that at once involves an effort to redeem himself, and to cleanse himself of his past misdemeanours. While I appreciate the sentiment of this, I found this element of the book struggled to maintain the same sense of gritty, hyper-realism that characterised its first three-quarters. Not to mention the fact that it also involves a few super-human action scenes and Macbeth-ian hallucinations that are perhaps more suited to an X-Men film than a novel that has spent a good hundred pages nodding towards Alexander Burgess.

Of course, the first few sections of the novel arent flawless, and there are some story-telling choices that didnt quite work for me. The combination of fish bowl-like omniscient narration from the teachers and counsellors felt a little jarring at times, particularly when these sections intrude between Hamishs diary entriesan issue that crops up later on in the book. I also found a certain repetition in Hamishs diary entries, and while I understand that the author was aiming for certain motifs and emphases, these did become a little tough to wade through after a while.

Still, Wright does a fine job of drawing an unlikeable character in a way that makes him (relatively) acceptable to read about. Moreover, the keen sense of place in this bookWright is a New Zealanderis something to applaud. I often find that much Antipodean YA feels unfocused when it comes to setting, but Wright anchors us firmly in his setting, and doesnt avoid using Maori characters and other groups in his writing. This firm avoidance of white-washing is refreshing, and I dont doubt that this one will become a firm favourite amongst young male readers. For a book with similar themes, be sure to check out Catherine Fords Skarrs (see my review).

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With thanks to Black Dog Books for the review copy

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