The Age, 28 May 2003
By Colleen Keane

Falling towards extremism

A young man must deal with his grandfather's Nazi past in a Belgian village where refugees have become new targets.

Anne Provoost's Falling foreshadowed the rise of refugee problems around the world. Published in Belgium in 1995, and translated into English in 1997, the novel also deals with the issue of extreme nationalism.

The broader cultural and social climate is encapsulated in the incidents in the small Belgian village of Montourin, as they echo dramatic events in other parts of the world.

In Australia, we have had the rise of Hansonism, the Tampa crisis and the detention centre debates. The United States had the rise of internal right-wing nationalist militias, September 11 and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that embody profound questions about the role of cultural, political and religious differences today.

What happens to Lucas Beigne on his summer holiday in the country transforms his life and changes him as a person in powerful ways. Falling is a classic rite-of-passage novel, tracking how demanding events impact on a young individual's development and propel him towards adulthood in a headlong rush. But this is a "big issue" version of the young adult genre as it is deeply imbued with themes of the interaction between the political and the personal. Lucas is forced to deal with: intensely personal matters, such as complex family stories and the power of friendship; historical issues, particularly Jewish refugees and the Holocaust in World War II; and varieties of racism as questions for today.

Lucas, the narrator, examines his experience as a restless adolescent on a boring summer holiday in his grandfather's house after the old man has died. The novel is also something of a mystery thriller as past events come to light and current motivations are uncovered with skill and intrigue. Through Lucas's eyes, the reader is carried along on a flowing, tumbling stream of inter-related events and their deteriorating impact. The metaphor of "falling" is constantly present as Lucas is propelled down this strange path of secret knowledge and frightening events.

After his grandfather's death, the villagers talk more freely about the darker aspects of the past. The feud between his grandfather and Soeur seems to be known to everyone, yet it is hidden from Lucas. When he meets Benoit, he is immediately told of his grandfather's notoriety and his own supposedly heroic legacy. Caitlin, staying at the convent with Soeur and her mother, is also aware of the facts, but Lucas's mother is defensive of her father, and surprised about the gesture of the woodpile, slowly coming to terms with her own illusions about him. When Lucas and his mother clash and drift apart, he ventures into dangerous territory, quickly becoming exposed to all kinds of uncertainties.

The question of why he wasn't allowed to play in the convent cellar with Caitlin in childhood, the racial tensions and resentment of Arab seasonal workers in the town, the undercurrent of violence in the thefts and people's preoccupation with safety and protection. It is precisely the anxiety about safety that takes Lucas to the gun shop and into the sphere of influence of the charismatic and manipulative Benoit, who lives on the astutely named Rue Machiavelli.

Here, as in many places, the novel taps into contemporary debates, this time about access to guns (such as in the film, Bowling for Columbine) and the line between protectiveness, provocation and violent paranoia.

Lucas is searching - for answers, for identity, for approval - and plays out his needs with both Caitlin and Benoit, "falling" for both of them in different ways. Caitlin represents culture and sensitivity, more feminine values, and Benoit embodies power and a destructive kind of macho "action" philosophy, disguised as social responsibility. Benoit's identity as a neo-Nazi dawns on the reader some time before Lucas acknowledges it and, by that stage, he has been seduced by Benoit's dynamic personality, semiconsciously identifying by having his hair cut and swapping the softer look for the skin-head. Benoit uses subtle means to recruit him, manipulating Lucas's sense of self to exploit it to his own anti-social ends.

The novel is a challenging study of personal awareness, motivation and responsibility. Lucas must come to terms with his grandfather's legacy, with his own involvement in Benoit's violent strategies and ultra-conservative social opinions, and with the tragic consequences of his quiet attraction to Caitlin.

Getting caught up with Benoit is partly inadvertent, but also decisive as Lucas is influenced by Benoit's views and his approval. He is set up as a "fall guy" for Benoit's campaign against refugees, but brings it upon himself to some extent through his unexamined need for approval, his need to belong, and perhaps to have stronger role models. The darker sides of the grandfather and Benoit represent compromised male role models.

Caitlin is at the heart of the narrative in all senses. She shared his childhood innocence and forms a crucial part of his growth towards adult emotions and responsibilities. He watches her from the skylight and appreciates her dancing.

It is through her that he finally learns of the intimate connection between Soeur and his grandfather; not just his betrayal of the refugee Jewish children in the cellar (including Caitlin's mother Ruth) but how he orchestrated Soeur's evasion of the German killing of the five other nuns protecting them. Caitlin represents vitality and beauty, and potential love.

But when he desperately tries to rescue her from the car with the chainsaw, Lucas is left with the consequences of once again not thinking things through. And she is left with a future of lost dreams of dancing.

The convent is a locus of the central narrative, and comes full circle as a place of safe haven for refugees in the present. Benoit's implicit plans to destroy it, like the presbytery, are left hanging at the end of the novel, with Lucas also living in a suspended state, dealing with all the accusations and complex implications of his involvement and his action.

Lucas's and Caitlin's futures are both uncertain, but each of them is considerably matured by their tragic summer.