The Life by Malcolm Knox. A review by author Kylie Ladd

by |May 30, 2011

Malcolm Knox knows how to get my attention. I first became aware of him when I chanced across his 2006 book Secrets Of The Jury Room, a dramatic account of his experiences as a juror on a lengthy criminal trial. A few years earlier I had been in a similar situation as the foreperson on a month-long trial at the Supreme Court of Victoria, a case which involved rape, arson and decapitation with a bread knife. I’d always thought I must write about it, but once I read Knox’s book I knew there was no point- he had captured the legalistic wrangling of the criminal justice system, the odd alliances that develop both within a jury and between the jury and court staff, and the fickle machinations of the deliberation room perfectly.

Next came Jamaica, a novel about a group of high school friends who attempt to put aside old grievances to compete as a team in a long distance swimming race in the Caribbean. High school certainly wasn’t the best time of my life, and swimming was my sport back then… let’s just say I sympathised when it seemed that some characters would be drowned by their own teammates before the event even began. Thankfully, I had no personal connection to Knox’s next book, Scattered, a sobering investigation into the escalating grip of the drug ice on Australia, but once I heard about The Life I knew I had to read it.

The Life, Knox’s fourth novel, is a book like a wave. Telling the story of once world-champion surfer Dennis Keith, it gains momentum in the shallows of Coolangatta, crests at Hawaii during the first world title of the sport, then crashes down, leaving DK, as he is known, beached at a retirement village in his fifties, 18 stone and no longer able to stand up on a board, subsisting on a combination of pills, pine-lime Splices and hand-washing rituals. My eleven year old son took up surfing about a year ago. Or rather, it took him up… he has swiftly become entranced, obsessed, addicted to the sea, to the swell, to his board. At its core, The Life is about this addiction, about the ocean “lit up with huge smashing sucking six-footers”, about shutting your eyes and seeing “easterly lines… (the) staircase outside the room was a six foot drop… grass bank in the lunch area was a fat shoulder ripe for a roundhouse cutback”; about how surfing reinvents you, “like every wave was a new swipe with a big wet cloth on the blackboard.”

That said, The Life isn’t Breath… but that’s absolutely no criticism. Comparisons between the two novels are impossible to avoid- both centre their stories around surfing, the sea; around teenage boys growing up so consumed with mastering waves that the rest of their life falls into disarray. Apart from this though, the two books share little more than their authors’ scant regard for punctuation and positive aversion to quotation marks. I loved Breath, Tim Winton’s Miles Franklin award winning novel, but as the quote from British newspaper The Guardian emblazoned across my proof copy of The Life says, “If Winton is an aria, Knox is early Rolling Stones.”

It’s an apt comparison. Winton is effortlessly fluid and graceful; Knox, in The Life (which interestingly is a complete departure from his style in Jamaica), is a brand new sound, one that jangles your nerves and makes you ask “What is this?” The story is told in the third person and then the first, jumps around between past and present without warning, is crammed with half-sentences, broken sentences, with repetition and colloquialisms, with thoughts that wander around for a bit on the page, then dive down and resurface a chapter or two later, planed back, made smooth. Without wanting to push the metaphor too far, it occurred to me half way through reading The Life that adjusting to Knox’s cadences, to the rise and fall of the language in the novel must be like learning to surf. At first everything is all wrong: too choppy, too abrupt, you can’t keep your balance or tell where you’re headed, but after a while you go with it, stop noticing, you coast straight down the words, and they take you somewhere else.

And that somewhere else is surprisingly moving. DK is a potentially extremely unlikeable figure: he stalks the local breaks, terrorising out-of-towners so they never dare surf his beach again; he ruins his own brother’s chances at an Australian title by taking off with his board; he moves in on the girlfriends of his mates just to mess with their minds. Most damning of all, he squanders his potential- his youth, his smarts, his chances; his extraordinary ability, the adoration and love of those around him. It would be easy to detest such a character, yet when the BFO- Keith’s bi-fricken-ographer, as he calls her- turns up and starts scrabbling at the pieces of his life the picture that emerges is altogether different.

I have been exposed, courtesy of my son, to enough Tracks magazines, to enough YouTube clips, to enough surfing legend and lore to suspect that the character of DK is loosely based on enigmatic Australian surfer Michael Peterson, another who tangled with heroin and the law, and, having been diagnosed with schizophrenia, lives today in semi-isolation on the Gold Coast. The similarities between the two are striking, right down to their mothers’ work as prawn peelers and their penchant for lemonade over beer. But it doesn’t matter. “The Life” of the novel’s title is defined early on as “this mythic world where you could surf as much as you want, any day, every day, go anywhere it was good”- the dream, in other words, of the would-be pro surfer. Yet in the end that’s not what the book is about either. It’s about DK and DK’s life, the waves and the wipe-outs, about how obsession defines, then destroys you, and it is Knox’s finest achievement to date.

Thanks to Guest Reviewer – Kylie Ladd

Kylie Ladd is the author of After the Fall, and was the first author to answer the Booktopia Book Guru’s Ten Terrifying Questions – read Kylie’s answers here…

When Kylie is not busy scribbling, she is also a delightful distraction on Twitterfollow her here…

Kylie’s Website: here…

About After the Fall:

The story of a friendship between two couples – and an affair that blows their worlds apart.

Two married couples: Kate and Cary, Cressida and Luke. Four people who meet, click, and become firm friends. But then Kate and Luke discover a growing attraction, which becomes an obsession. They fall in love, then fall into an affair. It blows their worlds apart. After the fall, nothing will ever be the same again.

And pre-order Kylie’s new book Last Summer here

I have read a proof copy of this wonderful book. I read it quickly. I really wanted to know what happened next. How these people would cope. When I wasn’t reading it – when I was at work – I kept thinking I should text the characters to see how they were doing… They had become such a part of my life. It was a wonderful feeling. A great thing for a novel to achieve. This is a warm, wise, entertaining and somewhat life-changing book. The Booktopia Book Guru.

Rory Buchanan has it all: looks, talent, charisma – an all around good-guy, he’s the centre of every party and a loving father and husband. Then one summer’s afternoon tragedy strikes … and those who are closest to him struggle to come to terms with their loss. Friendships are strained, marriages falter and loyalties are tested in a gripping and brilliantly crafted novel of loss, grief and desire.

Told from the points of view of the nine people who are mourning Rory, this riveting novel presents a vivid snapshot of contemporary suburban Australia and how we live now.

Marriage, friendship, family – all are dissected with great psychological insight as they start to unravel under the pressure of grief. The characters live on the page, their lives are unfolded and their dilemmas are as real as our own.

Last Summer is a novel about loss – the terrible pain of losing a husband, brother or friend, but also all those smaller losses that everyone must face: the loss of youth, the shattering of dreams, the fading of convictions and the change in our notions of who we thought we were. It is also about what comes after the loss: how we pick up the pieces and the way we remake our lives.

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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