Realism is a bad word. In a sense everything is realistic. I see no line between the imaginary and the real. – Federico Fellini
Newspapers like The Guardian tend to print book reviews during the week a book is released so if you happen to publish something on a week when a few heavyweights have something new out then you’ve probably missed your window of opportunity. You can imagine then Ben Rice’s surprise when in January 2001, in the week when the literary press were reviewing Peter Carey's True History of the Kelly Gang, that the Guardian reviewer Robert McCrum chose to write a review of a novella, Pobby and Dingan, by a first time author, that was only available in hardback at the time and had been available since the previous September. In his article McCrum wrote:
Normally, of course, our rule is to look forwards not back, but this little book, the author's first, is so extraordinary, it must be the exception. – Robert McCrum, ‘The smell of the outback’, The Guardian, 14th January 2001
By the end of his review he’s comparing Rice’s debut to Carey’s and saying that “Ben Rice makes a strong claim to be a leader of the new generation of writers.” In 2003 Rice was named by Granta magazine as one of twenty 'Best of Young British Novelists' in which he found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of A L Kennedy, Dan Rhodes, Sarah Waters and Zadie Smith, which certainly adds weight to McCrum’s prediction. Sadly, so far anyway, there appears to be no sign of that happening because the only other things Rice has published as far as I can see are the short stories ‘Specks in the Sky’, which was included in the paperback of Pobby and Dingan which came out in June 2002, and ‘Look at Me, I’m Beautiful’ which appeared in Granta 81.
When you trawl through sites like Amazon, Goodreads and Library Things there are loads of positive reviews of this book by ordinary people and very few allocate it less than four or five stars. People talk about reading it over and over again, of buying multiple copies and handing them out to friends and relatives. Jill S of Powell's City of Books wrote this:
Rarely do I read a book and come away from it feeling like it was a truly magical experience. I may even dare to say that Pobby and Dingan is To Kill a Mockingbird-good — and trust me, this is not a parallel I draw lightly. Suitable for anyone who can read. – Staff Pick, Powell’s Books
Goodreads reviewer Ann Marie reports that it also seems this book is being taught at some of the Chicago Public Schools as a “sort of a replacement for To Kill a Mockingbird on reading lists, although not because of the subject, but because it's a new modern classic.” It was a Chicago Book Club book too.
So what’s this book about and why am I just hearing about it now?
Most dictionaries define ‘imaginary’ as “existing only in the imagination; unreal” and yet is it as simple as that? What’s real? There are millions of people out there who believe in a personal god, who believe that God is a person. None of them were born with that belief but one day, somewhere along the lines, something happened and God became real to them. There will be those who say that God still isn’t real but these individuals only believe him to be real and believing that something is real doesn’t make it real. It’s an old argument.
Pobby and Dingan are real. As far as Ashmol Williamson’s eight-year-old sister Kellyanne is concerned they’re real. Ashmol isn’t so sure. No, he’s sure. He’s sure they’re not real. And so when Kellyanne crawls into his bedroom, her face all puffy and pale and fuzzed-over, and says, “Ashmol, Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead,” she gets no sympathy:
“Good,” I said. “Perhaps you’ll grow up now and stop being such a fruit loop.”
Tears started sliding down her face. But I wasn’t feeling any sympathy, and neither would you if you’d grown up with Pobby and Dingan.
“Pobby and Dingan aren’t dead,” I said, hiding my anger in a swig from my can of Mello Yello. “They never existed. Things that never existed can’t be dead. Right?”
Kellyanne glared at me through tears the way she did the time I slammed the door of the ute [utility vehicle] in Dingan’s face or the time I walked over to where Pobby was supposed to be sitting and punched the air and kicked the air in the head to show Kellyanne that Pobby was a figment of her imaginings.
So, typical big brother. The book doesn’t say how old Ashmol is but he’s not terribly older than his sister. Ashmol thinks he’s the only sane person in Lightning Ridge, the mining town in New South Wales that his family have moved to. His father has staked a claim and believes in the existence of opals there in much the same way as his daughter believes in the existence of her imaginary friends:
My dad would come back from the opal mines covered in dust, his beard like the back end of a dog that’s shat all over its tail. He would be saying: “Ashmol, I sensed it today! Tomorrow we’ll be on opal, son, and we’ll be bloody millionaires! I can feel those bewdies sitting there in the drives, staring back at me. Checking me out. Waiting.
It might seem a little hypocritical then for him to deride his daughter’s claims but he does: “Aw, sorry princess. Did I tread on your fairy-friends?” Her mother, a homesick pom, is more open-minded – on all counts. She tolerates her daughter’s quirks and her husband’s obsessions; if it wasn’t for her job in the local supermarket they’d probably starve. Her husband has, what Ashmol describes as, “strange eyes – blue and green with a flicker of gold in them.” The boy can read between the lines however when his mum describes them as, “Eyes like opals,” and then with a sigh, “only a little easier to find.” It has been a while since her husband has found anything.
The older, softer sort of folk in Lightning Ridge had sort of taken to Pobby and Dingan [though]. They had totally given up on throwing Kellyanne funny looks and teasing her about them. Now when she walked down Opal Street, some of the old-timers would stop and shout: “G-day, Kellyanne, g-day, Pobby, and how’s Miss Dingan doin’ today?” It made you want to be sick all over the place. Lightning Ridge was full of flaming crackpots as far as I could see. … [O]ne time Ernie Finch let Kellyanne enter Dingan in for the Opal Princess competition because Kellyanne had a cold. I’m not kidding. And the judges voted Dingan third place…
One day as they do things change. The kids’ dad starts to be a bit more respectful of Pobby and Dingan. Ashmol thinks he’s gone off his rocker. After a bit he decides that his dad who was not “a very subtle sort of bloke” was doing it to get back at his wife over something. Whatever his initial motivations he keeps it up:
When Dad left for the claim one morning he volunteered to take Pobby and Dingan with him to get some exercise while Kellyanne was at school. He was trying to separate her from them, I suppose, now I think about it. Kellyanne’s teachers, you see, had complained that she wasn’t concentrating in class and was always talking to herself and hugging the air.
“Don’t worry, princess!” he shouted. “I’ll look after them while you’re at school and make sure they don’t get up to no mischief. Won’t I, Pobby? Won’t I, Dingan?”
Later that day he returns home and an anxious Kellyanne wants to know where her friends are.
“Hi, princess! Relax now, darl. Pobby and Dingan’s right here sittin’ on the vouch next to Ashmol.”
Kellyanne looked over at the couch. “No, they’re not, Dad,” she said. “They hate Ashmol. Where are they really?”
“Oh no, that’s it,” said my dad, “I completely forgot. They’re out in the back yard watering the plants.”
Kellyanne ran outside. She came back looking pale. “Dad, you forgot all about Pobby and Dingan, didn’t you? You’ve lost them, haven’t you?”
“No, princess,” said my dad. “Calm down, sweetheart. They were in the ute with me when I came back.”
“I don’t believe you,” said Kellyanne, tears growing out of her eyes. “I want you to take me out to the claim to look for them right now.” That was my sister! She was mad as a cut snake
There is no consoling the little girl and so the father bundles the two kids in his ute and they head off to the mine.
And this is where things get messy. You see the guy who owned the claim next to Rex Williamson’ was Sid the Grouch:
Old Sid, who lived out there in a camp made out of pieces of corrugated iron, came running out from behind a weeping-wilga tree and stood by the starpicket at the corner of our claim with his arms folded. He had a big grey moustache, and he wore this kind of stupid beanie hat that made him look even meaner and stupider than he was. And believe me that was stupid. The rumour was he ate frill-neck lizards on toast for breakfast.
Old Sid watched as my dad got down on all fours and leant over the hole of Old Sid’s mine shaft and called out, “Pobby and Dingan! You down there?” Sid couldn’t make head or tail of what was going on. He thought my dad was ratting his claim and stealing his opal.
Ratting is “the same thing as murder in Lightning Ridge – only a bit worse.” The police are called and the kids’ dad end up in jail overnight. In the morning everyone knows what Old Sid believes happened. And just as Kellyanne believed her friends were real and really missing so the townsfolk believe that Rex Williamson really was a ratter and so, in their eyes, he became one.
Needless to say Kellyanne did not find her friends at the mine. At this time the little girl falls ill. Jack the Quack is called and tells her mum that she’s suffering from a nervous illness or depression and if she continues to refuse food he’ll have to arrange for her to be taken to hospital. She doesn’t get better. Ashmol rises to the challenge though. He decides that the only way his sister would make a full recovery is when Pobby and Dingan are found.
But how do you go looking for imaginary friends? I stayed awake all the bastard-night trying to get my head around the problem. I reckoned that the first thing would be to have as many people as possible looking for them, or pretending to look, so that at least Kellyanne knew people cared, that they believed in her imaginary friends and wanted to help out.
And so he sets about the task with gusto and some success but Pobby and Dingan are nowhere to be found. Even though a number maintain they know where they are Kellyanne can always see through them. In the end she reconciles herself to the fact they must be dead and tasks her brother with the retrieval of their bodies.
So, no pressure.
There are some people in this world “who don’t know what it is to believe in something which is hard to see, or [how] to keep looking for something which is totally hard to find.” Ashmol thinks people like that are fruit loops.
Pobby and Dingan is a strange story, which resolutely refuses to follow a classic sentimental pattern. Because the narrator is a straight-talking young boy it’s hard not to think of him as an Aussie Holden Caulfield, especially considering how fond he is of his sister despite her quirks, but there’s also a world of difference between them; Holden is a cynic, Ashmol is not. The book has been filmed and the resultant film, renamed (unnecessarily IMHO) Opal Dream, is very much a family film but it also loses some of both its magic and its edginess in the translation; it plays safe and when I watched it I spent all my time pointing out where it deviated from the book not that it’s a bad film but the book is better. Critics of the book call it “saccharine” and I totally get where they’re coming from – they would probably group it with the writings of Mitch Albom – but the book is better than that.
There are plenty of young adults who would be able to read and get this book – it wears its heart on its sleeve a bit – but it was never marketed at a YA novel and I agree with that decision. Just because a book revolves around children does not make it a children’s book. The Catcher in the Rye is not a children’s book.
To a Brit like me Pobby and Dingan comes across as Australian through and through. One Amazon reviewer did make this observation however:
A pity an Australian editor hadn't intervened somewhere to eliminate the howlers such as an Aboriginal woman dancer playing the didgeridoo, or the persistent Americanisms (even though Rice is English), or at least fixing the misspellings of words such as galahs. All this spoils its authenticity, something the author is clearly straining for (and to many succeeding because it's already sold in a dozen countries).
I searched high and low for a review by an Australian journal but couldn’t find any. There were several of the film but that’s another thing entirely. One or two reviewers have questioned the authenticity of the lingo. The question though is: Is it more important that the language spoken in the book be realistic or believable? I would have to go with the latter. This is a small community and has its own idiolect.
The book is not perfect and although it has a lot going for it I’m just a little surprised that Granta would include Rice in its list of hopefuls based on it. It’s a hard book to dislike though. Yes, names like Jack the Quack are a bit groanworthy but he doesn’t overdo it. My one personal gripe was Ashmol’s getting James Bond’s name wrong – he calls him ‘Blond’ – I don’t care how old he is or in what backwater he’s grown up I simply can’t imagine him getting that wrong. Never finding out what was wrong with Kellyanne is a bit unsatisfying too but I’m sure the author kept it vague deliberately. What I did like what that it handled its theme of faith and redemption without coming across as preachy and that’s where it’s nothing like Mitch Albom. There is a world of difference line between bittersweet and saccharine. I personally think Rice pulls it off.
The book has also been adapted for the stage (by Rob Evans in Scotland and Paula Wing in Canada) to great success. The film version is quite watchable. It’s tidier than the book, a little more realistic. In the book Rex is a drunk but in the film he’s not. In the book we see many of the townsfolk out looking for Pobby and Dingan but in the film we do not. In the film the wife is Australian not British and so the character of Granny Pom vanished completely. But the main difference between the two is the ending. The film blurs what happens at the end of the book, at least the cinema release does. When the film was shown on BBC2 the director’s original ending was restored.
You can read an excerpt from the book here, the first three chapters actually, and a poem, ‘Ramone’.
I’ll leave you with the trailer to the film.
Ben Rice was born in Tiverton, Devon in 1972, where Dan Rhodes was born as it happens but they never knew each other growing up. He studied English at the universities of Newcastle and Oxford before undertaking a Creative Writing course at the University of East Anglia. He’s travelled widely through Europe, Asia and the Pacific, the Mediterranean and also spent a year in Maine as a child, when his father was an exchange professor. He travelled to Australia on a writing scholarship and visited Lightning Ridge, the opal mining community where his girlfriend grew up. The experience resulted in his novella, Pobby and Dingan which he wrote whilst back in London. It was first published in the Australia edition of Granta: The Magazine of New Writing No. 70 Winter 2000. Now, very much like his creations, he seems to have vanished off the face of the earth. I found several Ben Rices online – one of whom was also born in Devon and is working as a surveyor and another who’s running a fruit and veg shop in London – but no sign of Ben Rice the writer. Not yet anyway.