Exchange of Heart by Darren Groth
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This review first appeared in Magpies magazine, Sept 2017
Munro Maddux is still hurting from the sudden death of his little sister Evie a year ago. It has left its mark on Munro in a number of ways. He has anger issues, suffers from flashbacks and chest pains, and there is a constant ache in his right hand. But the most invasive is the voice he calls the Coyote; the one in his head that comments sarcastically on every aspect of his life, making him miserable. Looking for an escape from everything that reminds him Evie is no longer there, Munro signs up for a student exchange program and finds himself travelling from Canada to Australia.
Munro’s parents have channelled their grief into a charitable foundation in Evie’s memory, raising funds and awareness for Downs Syndrome back in Canada. Munro thinks it’s great, but wants no direct part in it, because everything about losing Evie is so painful for him. His parents see him as lost, rudderless, and agree readily to his exchange student plan in a desperate effort to resurrect the boy he was before they lost Evie. It’s definitely a case of the old adage, “if you love something set it free”.
Once he arrives Munro has to sign up for a volunteer program at his host school, and finds himself placed at Fair Go, an assisted living residence for young people. As he befriends and works with his assigned team of residents, Munro finds that the Coyote is silenced and he begins to find his own voice and sense of identity again. Their achievements become his own milestones and he begins to put his life back together.
This wry, gentle novel has a powerful message about grief and acceptance. It also has a lot to say about how we treat people, particularly young people, we consider to be “other” in our society. The Fair Go residents are all marginalised people, just trying to make their own way in the world; just as Munro is. Blake and Dale, a Downs Syndrome girl and a guy with what might be MND, want to get married more than anything in the world. Not because, as their parents continually worry about, they want to have sex, but because they never want to be
separated. Shah, an Afghan refugee, sleeps most of the day not because he is exhausted, but so he can see his family in his dreams. They, and the other residents: Iggy; Bernie; and Florence, are all trying to realise their potential in a world that often thinks they have none. Munro is looked on as such a case at home, especially by his parents, and he readily identifies with his charges at Fair Go. He sees them, and they in turn see him as no-one else does.
Throw in a typically Aussie host family and temporary brother, some school friends, and a budding love interest, and what results is a highly engaging and heartfelt story, deftly told. Darren Groth’s characters are believable and grounded. There is not a lot of flowery language here, just great storytelling. The relationship between Munro and his Australian host brother, Rowan, was authentic; as were the conversations between Munro and his parents and friends back in Canada. I was also delighted to see an appearance by Perry Richter (from Groth’s last novel Are You Seeing Me?) as a first aid instructor at Fair Go – a nice way to connect the two books thematically without making it a “sequel” as such. This is a really accomplished effort by Groth, and I look forward to seeing it shortlisted for many awards in the coming year.
Suitable for secondary school students from Year 7.
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