This is a  review, written by Katelin Farnsworth, of The Promise Seed, by Cass Moriarty.  

Told through first person and third person narrative, The Promise Seed, shortlisted for the Queensland Literary Awards, is a compelling debut novel by Cass Moriarty. The novel is an emotional read and examines issues of violence, guilt, and abuse sensitively. At just under 300 pages, the book is rich and poignant. It takes the reader in an unexpected direction and is all the better for it.

The story follows two next-door neighbours: an elderly man, unnamed, and a ten-year-old boy, also unnamed. Through the use of these two voices, Moriarty allows greater depth to explore ideas, tackling complex issues that centre on abandonment and abuse. Perhaps by keeping these characters anonymous, Moriarty is making a statement about the countless, nameless victims of domestic violence.

The first person scenes, told from the perspective of the older man give an insight into the man’s past. Occasionally the old man’s voice is jarring however it ultimately carries the story, and for the most part, is strong and reliable. The reader learns that the man had a complicated time as a kid, spending most of his life in youth homes and boarding schools. Learning quickly that things have never been easy for him, we hear about the old man’s guilt and regret. He grapples with his emotions, feeling affection and annoyance towards the young boy simultaneously. Reluctant acceptance and eventual love is perfectly captured. This is the kind of writing that is real and raw, unafraid to delve into harsh realties.

Life’s a long hard road, but that doesn’t have to mean you give up and lie down when things get stony. I mean, have a gander at the kid. He hasn’t had an easy life, I know that now, for certain. But I never hear him complaining. So I think maybe I’ve learnt a thing or three over these last few days. About the boy. About myself.’

The scenes that follow the young boy are told in third person and tug at the heartstrings. The boy lives with his mother, a single parent. She spends most of her time drinking and sleeping with various men. An unstable character, she loves her son but is unable to put him first. The two of them live in squalor. These scenes are told tenderly, with empathy, and it is hard not to feel for the boy.

‘His mother’s boyfriends never hung around unless they were too drunk or stoned to leave; he crossed his fingers and hoped to hear the roar of the motorcycle. But instead he heard the toilet running and someone moving around the lounge room, and then raised voices, a man’s grunt, and his mother’s nasal tone. Suddenly his bedroom door was open and a man he had seen only once or twice before was glaring at him, intent.’

The young boy and the old man meet where the boy flees home in order to get away from a violent boyfriend of his mother’s. The old man begins to protect the boy, nurturing and bonding with him as the story unfolds. They tend to chickens together, work in the garden, and play chess. The slow blossoming friendship is beautiful to read and their alternative narratives gradually come together as the novel progresses. Each character is forced to unravel uncomfortable memories and deal with grim issues. Moriarty writes with insight, tackling these subjects without any sense of melodrama.

‘To tell you the truth, I kinda felt sorry for the kid. There was something in his eyes that stirred a memory inside me. For a moment, I was him. I was that boy hiding by the woodshed…’

As the story flits back and forth between both narratives, the reader becomes invested in both stories. The characters are written well, with complexity and believability. The author was inspired to write this story by her time at the Australian Red Cross, and it is a pleasure, although difficult because of subject matter, to read this stunning debut. Exploring violent relationships are often challenging to get right; Moriarty’s previous work history lifts this story up.

The richness of the old man’s hospitality, his warmth and heart, his eagerness to show the boy a good Christmas is touching, and is when the story is at its best. The emotional stakes are high and the characters are fully-fleshed. The reader is easily drawn into their world.  

‘The cool air felt delicious on the boy’s nose and shoulders, pink and tender from the day’s heat, the burn that had reflected from the shimmering water and the sparkling sand. He was half-walking, half skipping, every so often completing a happy little circle around the old man who shuffled forward in a weary but steady pace. In one hand he clutched the old man’s gift, meticulously rewrapped. The boy delivered a chirpy monologue, dissecting every aspect of the day since the second they had boarded the beach-bound bus.’ 

Moriarty identifies truths that are hard to put into words, writing with compassion and eloquence. This story could have been bleak, with no sense of redemption, but instead, it paints a realistic picture of family betrayal and family love. It assures the reader that nothing in life is ever black or white and that second chances are always possible. These two lives, woven together so simply and yet so movingly, show us that unlikely friendships are important, that people matter and that family can expand to those outside blood relations. 

The Promise Seed  is out now through University of Queensland Press


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Katelin Farnsworth's picture

Katelin Farnsworth

Katelin Farnsworth is a writer from Melbourne. She’s currently working on her first novel ‘All That Blue’ and has been published in various Australian journals. She studies Creative Writing at Deakin University.