WATCH OUT FOR ME - Sylvia Johnson

Reviewed By
Karen Chisholm

Four children telling a lie to stay out of trouble and a man shot in the head in London 40 years later.  Obviously there's some sort of connection as they are both elements of WATCH OUT FOR ME by Sylvia Johnson.  What's always intriguing with these sorts of unlikely components, is how and where the author is going to take the reader.

WATCH OUT FOR ME is an intriguing and complex debut psychological thriller.  Told in a series of short chapters attributed mostly to those children, their story bounces between them then and as the adults they have become.  One brother, two sisters, and their young cousin, who all come together for a summer holiday where something bad happened.  Whilst there is that concentration on the past, there are ripples into the present.  

WATCH OUT FOR ME builds deceptively.  At the start we're very much looking for an explanation of what happened in 1967.  In the current timeline one sister (Hannah) is in Sydney, dealing with the inconveniences of life in Sydney in lockdown for the visit of the American President; whilst the other (Lizzie) is in Morocco dealing with a more personal threat.  Cousin Toby is newly back in the Hannah's life, conveniently ducked by her brother Richard.  The relationship of the three siblings with each other, and then with the outsider - the cousin that they all seemed to like - touches on so many of the fundamental themes of this book - fear, prejudice, expediency, violence and panic, hysteria and cruelty - purposeful and accidental.  Meanwhile the true story of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes in London in the aftermath of the 2005 Underground bombings is touched upon, using clippings from the British newspapers.  This is not as odd or as sensationalist a juxtaposition as it would seem.  There is a synergy between the fictional and the fact.  The use of the fact isn't gratuitous - it illustrates all too well the mistakes that can be made in the realm of supposition.  

There are some standout characterisations in this book - Hannah grumpy, ranting, tense, scared, conflicted, abrasive, tricky.  Lizzie is more contained; frightened by the situation she finds herself in, stuck in a strange land, it never seems like she won't be able to cope.  Richard, the elder brother elusive, uninvolved.  Toby hesitant, his separation from the others has had ramifications in his life, as it emerges it did for the other three.  

WATCH OUT FOR ME is an interesting construction.  Much of the story is elusive, ethereal in some places, superficially there's a lot of disconnected elements - the three siblings, Toby, the mysterious man in the heavy overcoat, the past and present timelines.  It's a style that's going to be difficult for some readers, it's content uncomfortable, disconcerting.  Yet there's tension and suspicion and there's a connection to everything when you start to dig below the surface.  Often, when discovered, the connection is the emotional and personality traits formed or demonstrated in 1967.   

WATCH OUT FOR ME isn't a book in which the past comes back to haunt the present, rather it's a book in which the past gives you clues to the people that these children will grow up to become.  The way that their choices back then reflect, and affect, who they are years later.   Whilst the past is ultimately explained, the present is frequently more hinted at, not requiring blatant explanation, left to interpretation.  Which of course makes it the perfect book for this reader. 

Year of Publication

Everything about them seemed atavistic, elemental-wild hair matted like savages, jutting shoulders and collarbones, sharply angular limbs. The movement and wonder were captured and held in suspense, eternally. And in the foreground, slightly off-centre, one of the smallest children, a boy, looking bright-eyed and haunting up through the chaos, straight through to the camera's heart.

Australia, 1967. Four children tell a lie to get out of trouble. As a result, an immigrant worker is wrongly accused of a crime, with horrific repercussions. Nearly forty years later, in London, police gun down an innocent man suspected of carrying explosives concealed by his overcoat; and in Sydney a short time later, on the final day of a high-security international summit, another suspected terrorist pushes his way through the heat of summer, wearing an overcoat... As the tension builds in a sweltering city locked down in paranoia, we follow the now-adult children: two in Sydney, drawn into the heart of the unfolding drama; one in Italy, raging against global panic and mob hysteria; and one in Morocco, caught up in an anti-Western riot. Taut, haunting and offering no mercy from the relentlessly escalating suspense, Watch Out For Me is an astonishing novel that takes you to the heart of the fear and joy of childhood-and its secrets which can never be forgotten or outrun. The past resurfaces as a city holds its breath, and it is not only the children who will be forced to confront the consequences of that long-ago lie.

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