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Book review: Sketcher, By Roland Watson-Grant

 

The swamps to the east of New Orleans are an exciting place for a boy. Nine-year-old Terence "Skid" Beaumont is the youngest of four brothers. His father, Alrick, decided to build a shack here, prompted by a vision after a drunken bender. He was convinced he was set to make a killing from his property speculation, because New Orleans was bound to expand over the mire. That never happened and so the Beaumonts are stuck in the mud.

Alrick earns a living mending electrical appliances, but then he vanishes to the Big Easy and leaves his family to get by as best they can. Skid regales us with their picaresque battles against poverty amid the mosquitoes – not to mention alligators and surprise sinkholes. More hazardous still are the Benet brothers, who like pointing guns at Skid and his siblings.

Yet Skid's main concern is whether his brother Frico has magical powers: he suspects Frico can fix things and cure people by sketching their flaws away. When Valerie, his long-suffering mother, discovers Skid's obsession she takes him to a psychiatrist but Skid's faith in Frico persists .

Skid is irrepressible and precocious, from a Southern lineage that harks back to Scout Finch and Tom Sawyer. Roland Watson-Grant gives Skid a down-home vernacular that is markedly acute, rather than cute. Unimpressed by spectacular sunsets over the bayou, he wonders "why God spent so much time decoratin' a day that was dyin'".

Despite Skid's verbal talents, he is not the most reliable narrator, and so Watson-Grant's variant of magical realism keeps us guessing. While the swamp might be a realm with its own realities, the machinations of mainstream society continue in the big city beyond the mud.

The real threats to the Beaumonts appear to be corporate, rather than supernatural, in the form of businesses prospecting for gas. Skid has to realise that the problems of the swamps are not about to be fixed with a few pen-strokes. But if the broken parts of life cannot always be mended, most of it is still more than good enough, in these rollicking chronicles from the sticky side of Louisiana.

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