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; rather it has the feel 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.