Catherine Jinks’ latest thriller The Attack should come with a trigger warning for teachers on the cover. Half of the novel takes place ten years in the past when the main character was a primary school teacher who finds herself in the middle of a nasty custody battle. The other half, while set not in a school environment involves teenagers, and will be one very familiar to some teachers. The whole, taken together, makes for a consistently tense ride for any reader.
Robyn Ayres is the caretaker for a National Parks island off the coast of Queensland. The island is her sanctuary after a disastrous early career as a teacher. A group of ex-military men use the island to run boot camp for troubled teens, an activity that usually goes off without much impact on Robyn. But the latest group of delinquents includes Darren, a teenager who she remembers clearly as Aaron from her days as a primary school teacher. Before long, despite the best efforts of the group leaders, some of the teens are making Robyn’s life hell and she is remembering when she first met Aaron and the trauma that she endured.
The backstory, which plays out in alternate chapters, is of Robyn taking up a job as a primary school teacher in a school in a small town. Six-year-old Aaron is swearing and acting out from day one. Robyn’s difficulty is increased by Aaron’s domineering grandmother Joyce, who works in the school canteen, and the increasingly acrimonious custody dispute over Aaron which Robyn gets caught in the middle of. Being a small town, Robyn can not help but get some people off side when she tries to help out and things go from bad to worse for her. Through both of its narrative streams, The Attack builds to an explosive and revelatory (although not unexpected) finale.
The Attack considers how schools deal with conflict that expresses itself in the behaviour of very young children. But also, through the boot camp ten years later, the ongoing behaviour issues that some of those children continue to exhibit and how those are dealt with by society.
Jinks has shown in her ability to generate and sustain tension in both of her last two books Shepherd and Shelter. But more than that, The Attack once again demonstrates Jinks’ capacity to build that tension around characters who can be both vulnerable and resilient in situations which are not far from reader’s lived experience.