Book Review: In the Absence of Heroes, by Anthony McCarten

This book is in bookstores now, and is a finalist in the Fictioncv_the_absence_of_heroes category of the New Zealand Post Book Awards

In The Absence of Heroes is a sequel to Anthony McCarten’s earlier internationally acclaimed novel Death of a Superhero.  The original 2005 published version of Death of a Superhero was set in New Zealand but was transported to London when republished for a wider audience.  It was widely praised by critics and readers alike, it won several awards, and was made into a film starring Andy Serkis.

How have I not heard of Anthony McCarten before?  How had this very clever Kiwi writer so completely slipped under my admittedly rather imperfect literary radar?  I can however personally attest to the fact that you do not need to have read Death of a Superhero to enjoy In The Absence of Heroes but, like me, you will probably want to add it to your ‘to read’ list soon after.

In The Absence of Heroes revisits the Delpe family one year on from the death from cancer of son and brother Donny at the tender age of fourteen.  The family is struggling to come to terms with the loss and they are all falling apart in their own painful lonely, but very modern, way.  Mother, Renata, seeks solace and advice from a friendly faceless “God” on a Catholic confessions website.  Eighteen year old Jeff is simultaneously losing  – and finding – himself in an online role-playing game, Life of Lore (LOL, anyone?).  Father, Jim, whose video game experience is limited to Tetris, forces himself to go online to try and keep tabs on his son, in an attempt to act like the father he’s failing to be in real life.

How very far this is from picking his child up at the school gates, a hundred thousand miles from kicking a ball back and forth… Instead, Jim meets Jeff via a game no father in history could have played with their child until a half dozen years ago…

Meanwhile, Jim’s career and marriage are crumbling around him.

McCarten’s gritty, witty writing reminds me at times of Jonathan Franzen (whose books I alternately love and loathe).  It’s honest, clever, and acutely observant of modern family life.  However, despite its many moments of humour, this is not a happy story.  This is a family in crisis.  Maybe the book will serve as a powerful reminder to some readers to switch off the laptop or put down the iPad, and re-connect with their flesh and blood family.  As McCarten tells us at the very beginning of the book, “use of the internet is a contributing factor in nearly 50% of all relationship and family problems” (source: the internet).

Reviewed by Tiffany Matsis

In The Absence of Heroes
by Anthony McCarten
Published by Random House