________________ CM . . . . Volume XIII Number 17 . . . .April 13, 2007



James Heneghan.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood/House of Anansi Press, 2007.
184 pp., pbk. & cl., $9.95 (pbk.), $18.95 (cl.).
ISBN 978-0-88899-704-3 (pbk.), ISBN 978-0-88899-701-2.

Grades 6-8 / Ages 11-13.

Review by Brianne Grant.

*** /4



"Fags are cowards," Sammy jeers.

"I don't believe in fighting," says Benny. "That's why countries have wars. People like you start them."

I like the way Benny answers back, but Sammy isn't interested in debating. He gives Benny another shove. Benny slips, this time in the muddier part of the field, and goes down again.

Sammy laughs. The other kids about four or five of them yell for Benny to get up and fight. Benny stands. He looks down at his muddy hands and clothing, and his eyes start to tear up.

"Look he's crying!" Rebar yells.

The boys jeer.

"Faggot!" Rebar shouts

Everyone laughs. When they see there's to be no fight they walk away.

I know I should go and help him get up, but I have to run like mad to pick up Annie.


Young Charley Callaghan, a recent Irish immigrant to North Vancouver, begins his narrative by claiming that "this story is not about me." In truth, Payback, by James Heneghan, is a refreshing exploration of the psychological trauma experienced by Charley as he deals with both his mother's death and a suicide at his school. This novel has all of the tenets of realistic fiction: it is harsh, critical, and unflinching. The one element of this genre that Payback does not include is didacticism, and so it excels in presenting the difficult issue of school bullying and suicide without a heavy dose of adult finger wagging. By focusing on the psychological progression of Charley, Heneghan creates a gritty and compelling story that reflects an often ignored phenomenon of youth culture in public schools.

     When I first began reading Payback, I found the Irish accent of Charley a bit difficult to get into, but his charming character was quick to grow on me. His mother had cancer in Ireland and had recovered fully, but, soon after the family moved to Canada, the cancer came back and quickly took her life. Since Charley's dad works for BC Ferries and spends a few days each week away from home, Charley and his sister Annie stay with Aunt Maeve and their Crazy Uncle Rufus during this time. At school, Charley becomes a witness to the aggressive bullying of Benny Mason, another new student at the school. Charley remains silent, and, like the rest of the school and community, he becomes an 'accomplice' to Benny's tragic suicide. Heneghan very smoothly captures the thought process of Charley who often realizes he 'should go and help him,' but becomes too busy with his own life to actually do anything. His feelings of guilt and complicity are compounded by his inability to verbalize his "black secret" to his family, or the Mason family.

      Throughout his struggles with guilt and the feeling of loss, Charley still sees and talks with his mother. These instances clearly demonstrate the complexity of Charley's behaviour and indifference to other characters and life, but, at times, these scenes can appear awkward. In general, they do reflect the difficulty in letting go of loved ones who have died by holding onto memories of clothing, smell and the familiarity of their conversation. These parts of the novel may stand out as they take on a much softer tone than other parts of the book. There is a very surprising event at the end of the novel which very abruptly and violently breaks through the clipped yet fluid narrative of Charley. The incident highlights the wider issues related to families and domestic abuse while also adding a dash of a thrillingly fast pace into the normally calm narrative. The scene stands apart from the book; however, it does afford the reader a break from the many relatable experiences Charley describes, such as going to class, and from the psychological narrative.

      Through natural sounding language in the voice of a complex central character, Heneghan traverses rough territory where everyone from the school principal to casual witnesses of bullying are complicit in teen suicide. The story never shrivels into 'the problem novel' as the emotional landscape of Charley (and all teens) is too vast and too complicated to be belittled into such narrow confines. Payback is a refreshingly honest novel that seriously looks at the experiences of young boys in contemporary junior high school.

Highly Recommended.

Brianne Grant is a student in the Master of Arts in Children's Literature at the University of British Columbia.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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