The Mountains of Instead

Championing fiction as an escape from pandemics, politics and bad TV.

The Art of War (Review: Tomorrow, When The War Began by John Marsden)

Tomorrow, When The War Began
John Marsden
Quercus 2011

When Ellie and her group of friends head off into the bush for a week of camping, the most exciting thing on the horizon is the fact that this is the first time they’ve been away, boys and girls, unsupervised. They head directly to a remote area of the outback known only as Hell and spend a week eating, sleeping, talking and flirting. The only sign of the outside world is a flyover by several military jets – odd, but not inexplicable considering the annual Commencement Day celebrations going on back in town. However, as Ellie, Homer, Fi, Corrie, Kevin, Lee and Robyn drive back to town it quickly becomes clear that all is not well. Houses are abandoned, pets and cattle left to sicken and die, electricity and phone lines cut off. Confused and frightened, Ellie quickly realises that they’ve walked into the middle of an invasion and that the Hell they have left is nothing compared to the hell that they have returned to.

If Tomorrow, When The War Began truly has a protagonist, then it is definitely Ellie. While she would prefer to think of herself as narrator or documenter of her friends story (having been nominated for this task by the rest) she distinctly lacks objectivity and splashes every inside thought over the pages that she writes. However, her viewpoint is fascinating and through her clear voice and blunt storytelling readers are introduced to each character in an, if unobjective, pretty unbiased manner. Ellie’s overwhelming strength seems to be her logic – something that allows her to make difficult split second decisions. She’s also pretty good at compartmentalising her thoughts and emotions. From her tentative feelings towards Homer and Lee to her distress over her own violent actions as they face down enemies, she boxes it all away. This reads, very believably, as a young girl desperately trying to protect herself from a ghastly situation. When her carefully constructed walls do come tumbling down the effect is heart-wrenching and riveting.

The other characters, as seen through Ellie’s eyes, are no less compelling. Homer and Lee (somewhat inevitably, considering the narrator) quickly emerge as the most interesting. Homer is particularly fascinating in his metamorphosis from class clown to capable leader and his clearness of thought is a pleasure to read. Lee is a pleasingly quiet and underplayed character but one whose interactions with the group are again clearly thought through. His interactions with Ellie are especially touching. Of the rest of the group, Fi is perhaps the most readable – she’s a pleasing contradiction of silly, girlishness and inner resilience and is instantly likeable. Robyn and Chris gain lesser roles but philosophise interestingly on the reasons for war while bullish Kevin and gentle Corrie round out a strong cast of characters.

Tomorrow, When The War Began (and the subsequent series that followed) were a huge hit when they were released to ‘90s Australia and continue to be widely read and adored in Oz to this day recently spawning a feature film, attracting a new generation of readers and finally garnering publication in the UK. It’s not hard to see why – as well as strong characters, the writing is gripping, the plot simple yet thrilling and the ending suitably climactic. While much of the book is necessarily grim, Marsden also includes plenty of (mainly gallows) humour so readers never feel too overwhelmed by the situation the characters find themselves in. Where Marsden particularly excels, though, is in his ability to write teen-speak that reads believably. While I cannot vouch for the many Australian-isms that pepper the text, the way in which the group interact and talk to each other rings absolutely true and provides this title with a core strength on which the story is then built. The central premise of an Australia under attack plays out nicely and is explained in as much as a group of teens can explain it. It's never entirely clear who the enemy are, only that they have arrived in force to a country that has never prepared for the threat of invasion. Through the characters eyes, the invasion has occurred in an almost eerie silence and this gives their enemies a very sinister edge.

Certainly this is a book that I wish I'd had access to as a teen – I'd have loved it then – but one that I've really enjoyed reading from an adult standpoint. Often it seems that YA fiction has been written with a knowing nod to not so YA readers and it's refreshing to read a book that is aimed squarely at it's teen audience. I'd recommend this to readers across the board and am keen to read the follow up as soon as possible.

Tomorrow, When The War Began is available now. Thank you to Quercus for sending me this title to review.


Cat Clarke said…
This is such an excellent review! I loved this book.
Nomes said…
so glad you loved this! it is one of my fave books of all time and i am absolutely completely nostalgic about it now (so have no objectiveness whatsoever) ~ i love the series as it continues. i re-read them all again last year and they were just as addictive as the first time around :)

the movie was pretty good too :D
Catnip said…
Great review!
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