No need to start with The Story of Danny Dunn

Courtenay: writing machine

Except for a stint in Asia during World War II, Danny Dunn lives all his life in the Sydney suburb of Balmain.  With street smarts and gumption, he manages to crawl out of poverty.  His story?  A lot of beer and sport mixed together with war, class politics, and an occasional bit of spirited sex.

Against the odds, Danny is quickly and uneventfully domesticated by Helen; after a side trip to America to fix up his war-smashed face, the two settle down.  For a nuclear family of the 1950s, their lives are strangely familiar: two high-powered careers, scheduling dramas, and endless, inconvenient household renovations.  From the first moment, when he insists on being present for the birth of his twin daughters—something unheard of in the 1950s—Danny is a shining example of fatherhood, involved, healthy, supportive.  It’s just not believable that he’s also haunted by the war.  Every now and then, he’s overcome with anger, but then, isn’t everyone?  These scenes, meant to convey the psychic war wounds later known as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, feel tacked on and inauthentic, a lazy author’s cheap ploy to maintain dramatic interest.

Helen, Danny’s mother Brenda, and his daughters are intended to be strong and determined, but they feel like mannequins—fantasy versions of feisty females dressed up and put into poses according to the needs of the story.  There is no sense of their inner worlds.

The Story of Danny Dunn is a long, long book, which is understandable since it spans three generations.  Sadly, much of it is unnecessary.  There’s too much back-story. The historical digressions, while interesting, have a whiff of Wikipedia. A good editor could have cut the word count by a third simply by ridding the story of its many clichés.

Courtenay is an author who eschews literary aspirations in favour of writing what he puts forward as simple stories about simple lives.  In this case, such non-elitism falls into shallow characterisations, predictable conflicts, and expected resolutions.  In a recent interview, Courtenay claimed to have the education required to write a literary novel, to be a writer rather than just a storyteller.  Unfortunately, The Story of Danny Dunn isn’t a good novel of any sort.  It isn’t a novel by Bryce Courtenay, the Writer, or Bryce Courtenay, the Storyteller;  it has the feel, rather, of being manufactured by the Bryce Courtenay Machine.  While there’s nothing to dislike about Danny, there’s also nothing compelling about him or his story.  Save fifty bucks: don’t bother with this book.

The Story of Danny Dunn, Bryce Courtenay, Penguin.

Review first published in The Courier-Mail in December 2009.


  1. I enjoyed this book but also partially agree with your review. The book seemed rather happy-go-lucky fro a lot of it, and as someone who was expecting more of a war tale, what I got hardly delved into PTSD. I agere with you that Danny’s bouts of anger seemed forced.

    I also agree almost with your opinion of the women. I liked the character of Brenda, obbsessive to the point she almost destroys her family in the same way Danny eventually destroys his. Helen, however, was far too perfect. There was hardly anything of her inner world and it felt like a cliche.

    However, all and all I enjoyed this book. I didn’t find anything wikipedish about the research, (I would find it hard to believe someone who employs a full time researcher wouldn’t have good research), but all the same it wasn’t the story that grabbed me, it was the ending. Blunt, shocking, and anything but what I was expecting, it left me in tears and sent home the message he had been struggling to all along. The ending saved this book from a disappointment to an average Courtnay read (average for Bryce, IMO, is very high).

    Thank you for your review, though, I see your point and relate.

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