Author: Willy Vlautin
Faber Fiction RRP $27.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
The United States’ national anthem affirms the country’s pride in being the “land of the free”; freedom is something its people fought for long ago in a number of ways, and continue to do so now. Here in Australia, freedom is valued just as much. So, how is it, or is it, possible for people to feel trapped within a culture of freedom? That’s what author Willy Vlautin examines in The Free, an ironic and thoughtful novel that drew me in with considered prose and an aching sense of familiarity. The characters are ordinary people, living ordinary lives, yet The Free is no mundane story – I thought it was rather special.
A diverse cast of characters, all connected by a hospital, share the telling of The Free. A wounded war veteran lies in a hospital bed after a failed attempt to end his life, experiencing fleeting moments of clarity mixed with strange nightmares; a nurse is compelled to help a young drug-addicted runaway who’s been admitted to the hospital, as well as keeping an eye on her mentally ill father out of hours; and a night watchman who visits the veteran in between jobs and trying to put his ruined life back together post-divorce. In their own way, each character bears the scars of life, circumstance and choices; in their own way, each one is trapped. They’re not free in their life, nor in their dreams.
Leroy, who fought for freedom, is trapped by his body and mind (and previously, his occupation as a soldier); Freddie drowning in bills makes a choice that could land him in jail, but keeps the creditors at bay; Pauline both loves and loathes her father (who himself is imprisoned by mental illness); and young Jo, a runaway from a strict Christian home, is imprisoned both by guilt and her self-destructive choices. Vlautin characterises each one beautifully, highlighting their flaws and weaknesses, but never judging. Instead, he uses them to comment on a country in which people fight to maintain the ideal of freedom, yet struggle to pay for health care. It could be a bleak novel, and indeed, some parts are very sad, but Vlautin infuses the story with hope through some of the characters’ acts of kindness.
The thing about a book like this is that readers will all get something different out of it. For me, the stand-out theme was freedom, because I can relate to that sense of being trapped at different times in my life. I love my life, but I’d be lying if I said that no matter how much I love my family, life, job and so on, sometimes I yearn to fly, if only for a little while, if only in my dreams. I’ve felt trapped in a job, imprisoned by finances, and bound by responsibility. Haven’t you? I’m also a strong believer in hope, and that’s what gets me through. The Free struck a chord with me and it’s one I will be recommending to fellow book lovers, especially those up for a little soul-searching and philosophising.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.
Bookish treat: A small piece of bittersweet dark chocolate – good for the soul, and not too unhealthy. Oh, alright, a few small pieces.