Barry Mundy has brown skin and a blue birthmark and, at seventeen, those two colours define his life. When he gets a job at the Croc-Jumping cruises on the Adelaide River in the Northern Territory, he carries a list of names of the men who could be his father. They're all dark for different reasons and Barry hungers to know whose blood flows inside him. All he sees when he looks in the mirror is a brown mask that hides a blue secret. Brown Skin Blue is a compelling tale of a teenager searching for identity, love and family in the Top End.
Brown Skin Blue is one of those unassuming books that caught me unaware - by the time I had finished with it I knew I had read something extraordinary.
Barry Mundy (who everyone calls Barramundy) has a secret - which the reader knows, but no one else does - it's a secret that means journalists are tracking him down and that gives him nightmares. A secret that robbed his childhood and a secret that has bigger ramifications that Barramundy has yet to discover.
Barry (seventeen) is on his own in the hot town of Humpty Doo. He manages to score a job with Top End Croc Jumping Cruises - showing tourists the deadly crocs. He's living in Humpty Doo Hotel and keeps a piece of paper on his fridge - it's a list:
Teabag. Toucan. Stumpy. Lovejack. Boomboom.
The five names his mother gave him - having nailed down the five possible men that could be his father.
Setting: The story takes place in Humpty Doo, in the Northern Territory. Just like the richness of the setting in Lucy Christopher's Stolen, Jeffries achieves a similar brilliance with immersing the reader in top end Australia, which is like a country of it's own with it's own breed of resilient and colourful characters. I've never been to Darwin or the Northern Territory so I really appreciated how well the setting was painted in my mind through Jeffrey's words.
Among the characters are the rag-tag crew working at the Top End Croc Tours and a girl, Sally, who likes Barramundy but also has her own secrets.
Each character has their own story and Jeffrey doesn't hold back or sensationalise the way it is.
Tyson shakes his head. 'Dad left when I was a kid.'
The way he says it makes me feel cold and tight in my throat. he couldn't be more than nine of ten and I'm suddenly sitting beside him wondering how long it's been since he thought of himself as a child. It's like I'm sitting next a version of myself at the same age. Lost between a childhood that might never have been and a sea of nothing in between. Grown up and ground down too quick. p175
The plot unravels at a steady pace which did not quite prepare me for the astonishing climax. The story follows Barramundy while he's with the gang on the croc cruise, nights spent having drinks at Humpty Doo Pub and time in his room with Sally. He's wondering about his father and thinking about his mother who he left behind. And - he's trying to out-run childhood scars.
Approaching the climax, I had a sudden sense of where Jeffery was taking the story and I wanted to stuff my fist in my mouth and not let it be true. All the threads came together so masterfully that to say it was poignant seems like too pretty a word for something so powerful.
"I'm a boy in a river of tears never cried and I have my own cards to play. I have been in this moment all my life.
There's one last story I have to let go of." p 197
"Riddick's the man I want to be. He's broken, he's done things he's not proud of, but he's had the guts to conquer everything. He's survived." p 103.
Recommended: Brown Skin Blue is a book that could be read in schools - strong in themes such as identity, hope, belonging, community, family, legacy and forgiveness- it's a coming of age story unlike one I've read before. It's a story both tragic and triumphant that will linger long after the last page has been read.
Random stuff to love:
Character's names which added to a real sense of Australian Top End authenticity like McNabm Blue, Boof, and Teabag Jones and Stumpy Johnson.
Crocodile facts. And other fascinating info snuck in at the ends of chapters. I mean, who knew? A grade Crocidile Skin is worth $7.40 per centimetre
The crocs all have their own personalities and stories that match their names. There's Albert, Mavis, Bluster, Elvis, Robot and Scoop.
Brown Skin Blue was short-listed for the 2009 WA Premier's Award
(The 2009 winner was Liar by Justine Larbalestier)
Judge's comments: Belinda Jeffrey Brown Skin Blue
Definitely for the older end of YA spectrum and quite gripping, Brown Skin Blue is topical and well written. There is some shocking content in these pages, but it is powerfully and appropriately drawn. This is challenging subject matter to write, and Jeffrey has handled it very well
Fantastic story about a young man in the outback who not only has to wrestle with his personal problems created by a difficult episode in his past and a mother who found it hard to help, he also has to learn to face the future and find his way in a man's world. He is a totally believable character, as are the other characters in the story, the setting is vividly described and the use of metaphor is what makes this story so beguiling.
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