Book Review | The Better Son | Katherine Johnson

Drawing inspiration from the beautiful but sometimes dark and frightening landscape of Northern Tasmania, and inspired by the true story of James and Harry Byard, who are believed to have found and entered Marakoopa Cave in 1906 and kept their discovery a secret for four years, Katherine Johnson in this, her second novel, takes us on a tour through the picturesque Mole Creek district and its incredible caves, exploring the events that have impacted one man’s life since he was nine years old.

Opening in present day, we are introduced to Kip, almost sixty, who has made his way back to his hometown - a place he swore he’d never return to.

You see, in 1952, he and his older brother, Tom, discovered a cave not far from their dairy farm and, against their mother’s wishes, had taken to exploring the labyrinthine subterranean world that allowed them to be young, wild and free of the responsibilities and work that faced them at the farm.

For Kip, especially, it was an escape from a father who had returned from the war a violent, moody and abusive man and, even though his brother, Tommy, was loved and treated better, it didn't affect the siblings' relationship, with Kip looking up to Tommy as his hero. Then, one day, something went terribly wrong and Kip had to return to the farm on his own!

The lie and tragedy surrounding that fateful day has coloured Kip's life so drastically that he has no choice but to make a journey of atonement in order to exorcise the grief and guilt he still feels so that he can mend his broken marriage and be a better father to his own son.

If I could give this novel 6 stars instead of the usual 5, I would, so it comes as no surprise to me that it has won a number of prizes including The Varuna HarperCollins Manuscript Development Award 2013 and has also been praised by Michelle de Kretser, winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award 2013.

With its dark past and vast amount of unsolved mysteries, Tasmania is the perfect place for Katherine Johnson to have set this story, with the caves in Mole Creek lending the tale a dark and unsettling atmosphere as she explores the emotions of her characters.

Although keenly felt by the reader, but not particularly graphic, Katherine perfectly captures the rejection, cruelty and abuse that is laid on young Kip by his father and I really empathised with his yearning for fatherly love which was palpably heart-breaking.

We are also treated to the perspective of Squid, the gentle farm worker, who remains behind long after Kip has fled, keeping an eye on his mother who we come to know through her dialogue with both her young sons and Squid, and who is kindness and tolerance personified. 

Katherine’s storytelling is breathtaking and you will find yourself immersed in the bold and majestic landscape as she takes the time to note the world and all its lush details around her characters, making it a fully formed character in its own right. 

Filled with sadness and despair, yet full of beauty and hope, this is a quietly told novel with muted colours, deeply sympathetic characterisation, a captivating plot, an evocative setting, and an emotional tone that had me reaching for the Kleenex a few times.

All in all, Katherine Johnson has given us a story about how secrets and undealt with grief and guilt can silently torment and pervade our lives. She is most definitely an author I’ll be keeping my eye on.

I wish to thank the publisher, Ventura Press, for providing me with a hard copy ARC for review.

About the Author

Katherine Johnson was born in Queensland and grew up alongside the fig-tree lined Brisbane River.

At university she combined her two loves ― writing and biology ― graduating with both Arts and Science degrees, with honours in marine biology.

Katherine then moved to Tasmania where, after more than a decade working as a science journalist for the CSIRO and other organisations, she began writing fiction: stories of love, loss and resilience set against wild landscapes.

Her first novel, Pescador’s Wake (Fourth Estate) is set on the Southern Ocean, in South America and Tasmania.

Katherine has travelled in Africa, Indonesia, Europe and Alaska.

She is now completing a PhD in creative writing at the University of Tasmania and lives on a cliff top overlooking the sea with her husband and two children

Her latest adventure was to wild south-western Tasmania by yacht.

About the Book

1952. Tasmania. The green, rolling hills of the dairy town Mole Creek have a dark underside — a labyrinthine underworld of tunnels that stretch for countless miles, caverns the size of cathedrals and underground rivers that flood after heavy rain. The caves are dangerous places, forbidden to children. But this is Tasmania — an island at the end of the earth. Here, rules are made to be broken.

For two young brothers, a hidden cave a short walk from the family farm seems the perfect escape from their abusive, shell-shocked father — until the older brother goes missing. Fearful of his father, nine-year-old Kip lies about what happened. It is a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life.

Fifty years later, Kip — now an award-winning scientist — has a young son of his own, but cannot look at him without seeing his lost brother, Tommy. On a mission of atonement, he returns to the cave they called Kubla to discover if it’s ever too late to set things right. To have a second chance. To be the father he never had.

The Better Son is a richly imaginative and universal story about the danger of secrets, the beauty in forgiveness and the enthralling power of Tasmania’s unique natural landscapes.


  1. Wow! This sounds great Marcia. I'll be looking out for a copy.

    1. Ronnie, as you can see from my review, I really loved it. Nothing better than some good Tasmanian Gothic 😊


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