Whisky Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Whisky Charlie Foxtrot, by Annabel Smith is a novel about identical twins Charlie and William Ferns. Significantly, the unfolding tale is built around a chapter structure that follows the phonetic alphabet- alpha bravo Charlie delta echo etc - a code the boys used with their walkie talkies when they were 9 years old and the origin of William’s nickname, “Whisky”. The chapters are essentially vignettes from Charlie’s point of view, from childhood to adulthood, from the UK to Australia. Interspersed are chapters in the present day where Whisky is in a coma after an accident, resulting in an emotional collision in Charlie’s life.
The use of the phonetic alphabet structure is limiting and distracting from the story at times. It was hard for me to switch off wondering how much of the story was invented for the chapter title (for example, Lima – so Whisky’s wife comes from Lima) and how much of the story was bent to comply the alphabetic framework. There are some chapters where the title alphabet code is woven into the narrative with great elegance and others that are extremely clunky. Despite this, Annabel Smith manages to maintain a narrative drive throughout. In fact, the book is meticulously structured, both the parts told from Charlies past and the present day chapters about Whisky in a coma and how the family cope with this.
The structure of the book, often introducing a new element to the story with each chapter, meant that Charlie and Whisky’s world lacked intricacy and depth for me – it does skip along in jumps and tangents and zig zags. In contrast, the parts about the hospital are detailed, descriptive and, at times, moving.
The biggest difficulty I had with this book was attaching myself to the characters. Overall I couldn’t stand Charlie. And the book is ALL ABOUT HIM. He was immature and basically, excuse my French, a dickhead. As a child and teenager he seemed quite lovely but the adult he grew to be defensive, closed, rude, insecure, cowardly, proud and judgemental. Continually. At every juncture. And Whisky, as an advertising go-getter-jet-setter didn’t hold my interest very much at all. Shallow as a paddling pool really. They were not people that interested me at all. What kept me going was warmth and the affection I felt the author had for the characters; the empathy there.
There seemed to be many inconsistencies in the story which I wondered were the influence of the twist and turns required from adhering to the alphabetical structure. Sometimes Charlie was closed, even to his girlfriend Juliet, but later the book suggested they always talked to each other before sleep and were open with each other. Charlie disliked poetry – yet earlier he recognised an Emily Dickinson quote. And Whisky marrying a girl from Lima after a week of knowing her just seemed too ridiculous – although the character of Rosa was a lovely salve of truth for the repressed Ferns family. A great counterweight.
The central idea that Charlie has to deal with his relationship with his twin brother and therefore himself before the rest of his life can click into place, worked well and rang true. The block for Charlie was understandable – it was a big block – a big chip on his shoulder. The sibling relationship is intensified with identical twins, always looking to the other instead of himself. (“Comparison is the thief of joy” and all that.)
The real achievement of this book is sticking with the structure while managing to maintain a strong narrative drive. Some of the chapters are well crafted like a delicate short story and there was certainly many creative uses of the phonetic alphabet chapter heading as springboards. I couldn’t help but wonder if the structural “trick” was removed, would the story be worth it? Strong enough? Would it be more interesting if the point of view changed between the characters? Unfortunately I just found it difficult to immerse myself into the story, found the characters annoying and found the structure distracting and a little too ever-present, laboured, literal and in the foreground.
“Whisky Charlie Foxtrot” certainly is a crafted book and the hard work gone into it is evident – a bit too evident at times. For me, I just wish the characters that took me on a journey through the phonetic alphabet had some more maturity and depth to them. Roger that. Over and out.
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This book is part of my challenge to read more Australian Women authors for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.