Review - FREDERICK'S COAT, Alan Duff
From the author of Once Were Warriors, FREDERICK'S COAT is equally as surprising, challenging, moving and profoundly affecting. It's also particularly unusual in that it looks past the crime, the investigation and jail time to a life that is being rebuilt.
Johno comes from a long line of single fathers. So it's no particular surprise that his release from jail after a long sentence doesn't lead to happy ever after in his personal life. Despite trying, it's not long before his wife packs up and leaves him, taking their daughter with her. This leaves Johno responsible for the care of their son Danny. Johno vows to go straight, to set a good example, to be different from his own father and grandfather. That's not to say that anything they did was cruel, or exploitative. In their own way, this is a family of caring and loving men. Lifetime criminals who did their best, it's that habitual criminal aspect that Johno is determined to avoid for Danny.
From the very start, as soon as Johno comes out of jail, it's obvious that Danny's very different. It's not just his artistic ability, there's something else. His social skills aren't good, he's instantly the target of bullies in school, he simply doesn't fit in. Johno takes each of the challenges that Danny throws at him and does the very best he can. He also works hard, builds a business, makes a lot of money, stays as straight as he possibly can, cares for Danny, encourages his artistic interests, is proud of his son. Along the way he helps out old friends, and eventually finds love of his own. All the while Danny's behaviour becomes more odd, and stretches Johno's understanding further. Although nobody could possibly predict the outcome when Danny befriends a homeless man. All Johno can do at that stage is stand by and watch the car crashing - or does he fall back on old connections from his criminal past?
FREDERICK'S COAT is an unusual crime novel in that it's exploring long term consequences. It does that in a particularly moving and sobering way. There's so much here about the struggle to change your destiny, the difficulties in handling the temptations that we all brush up against every day, and the ease with which wrong decisions can be made. It's also most definitely a story about love. There's real love between these generations of men, and there is a stoic acceptance of failings, foibles and faults.
There's also a touch of steel displayed. Johno is a man who is determined to get in front of his background, to make a change in his life. He's quiet about it, not flashy and not prone to emotional outbursts but there's something about him, in particular, that was so real, so raw and so beautifully drawn that it's almost impossible to get to the end of this book without a tear in the eye.
Regardless of whether you believe (as this reader does) that FREDERICK'S COAT is a psychological thriller, an exploration of background, upbringing and influence, it is definitely an outstanding analysis of consequences.
Regardless of how you want to classify it, FREDERICK'S COAT is different. Beautiful, moving and a difficult book to read, it was an absolute privilege to do so.
When Johno comes out of prison, he resolves never to go back again. But his new life is not easy, especially as he soon finds himself in sole charge of his strange young son, Danny. Danny isn't the kind of son he would have chosen, but, in caring for the boy, Johno finds new meaning and new direction.
But what do you do when the world you've so carefully built comes crashing down? Can you ever escape your past?