Review: The Comet Box

Liza Moss, Teacher Librarian from Kotara High School and Paul Saxby of St Patrick’s School Bundaberg give us their reviews of Adrian Stirling’s The Comet Box

Review from Liza Moss

What is the significance of the name Samantha Collins? And what secret wishes do the rest of Andrew’s class have? Fourteen year old Andrew Ross learns the answers to these questions as he looks forward to the coming of Halley’s Comet in 1986. Covering a period of six months, the novel examines the dissonance between the surface and reality of suburban life through the perspective of a teenage boy who thinks he knows his neighbourhood and his neighbours like the back of his hand. But he doesn’t know why his sister has run away from home, and the process of finding out why reveals other unpleasant facts about the community he lives in.

The ‘comet box’ of the title refers to a box Andrew’s teacher gets the class to place secret wishes in for later checking of fulfilment after the coming of the comet. Burning with curiosity about his classmates’ wishes, Andrew steals the box and reads the wishes beginning his progression from naïve teenager to a more worldly one as he sees his classmates and their parents in a different light.

This is a novel more suited for wide reading or the library shelf than class study, the numerous failed relationships, whether that of  parent and child or between spouses, giving the book a rather bleak aspect even though it ends on a slightly optimistic note. There are humorous moments such as when Andrew and his friend explore the neighbourhood underground through the new pipe system and end up underneath Andrew’s house as his father is singing in the shower and Stirling evokes vivid pictures of the slightly nostalgic world he has created. It’s a bit like watching the film Rear Window as one becomes a voyeur on the lives of a select group and suspense builds about the cause of fractured family relationships.

I would recommend The Comet Box for readers of about Year 9 and above (14+). It will appeal to thoughtful readers as Stirling challenges us to distrust face values but he also demonstrates sympathetic writing of characters and their motivations. This is deftly shown in Andrew’s father’s understanding and acceptance of the compensation money spent on a football club in memory of his disabled brother.

Review from Paul Saxby

The Comet Box is the story of a young teenager, Andrew living in a fictitious battler’s suburb in Melbourne. His sister runs away for a time, though the reader is left to speculate why for a good deal of the novel. The only clue is a girl’s name left scrawled on his sister’s bedroom wall and which is hurriedly removed before the police arrive. The implication being,one or both of Andrew’s parents know more than they are letting on.

Spread among the bleakness of Andrew’s ordinary life, there are some beautifully descriptive and insightful passages which can be seen as examples of how writing can illuminate what appears on the surface to be a mundane existence.

There is a beautiful and evocative flash back to a beach holiday, where a near tragedy engenders a sense of trust between Andrew and his sister, and which exposes the sometimes superficiality of summer friendships. An interstate visit to extended family also helps Andrew to develop what has become a tenuous relationship with his sister. Due to a familiarly stupid act of male teenage bravado, his ex-football star Uncle Greg, becomes handicapped. This results in Andrew’s grandfather Ray being lost in a myopic haze of fake self-confidence, grief and unfulfilled longing and which he projects onto Andrew’s father by forever belittling him.

This is uncomfortable reading, though it is lucid and startling in its honesty and in its depiction of the ubiquitous nature of teenage questioning of adult authority. Particularly in light of actions, decisions and behaviours which at times are less than intelligible. The author is asking, through Andrew’s sister’s decision to run away, “What right have you got to tell me to do this when all the while you are doing that?”

The Comet Box itself is a clever literary device. To dispel any belief in the medieval mystical powers of Halley’s Comet Andrew’s teacher asks each of the students to write a wish and place it in a box. These are to be revisited once the comet has passed. All the while, this has implications for Andrew while he continues to navigate his way through the struggles of family, friendships and encounters with the variously unhappy and forlorn, though somehow stubbornly courageous individuals who populate his neighbourhood.

Set against a stifling Melbourne summer, The Comet Box would add plenty of heat – and dark humour – to a Year 11/12 classroom discussion about what it is like to grow up amid comparative cultural poverty and social disadvantage. The novel also cleverly addresses the question of who is ultimately accountable for the things that can go wrong in people’s lives and how we can create ownership and restore justice.

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