Annabel Smith’s 2012 novel ‘Whisky Charlie Foxtrot’ explores two of life’s mysterious phenomenon: identical twins and coma. The title refers to twin brothers, Charlie and William. After a childhood friend’s Air Force father teaches the boys to use the military alphabet on their walkie talkies, William becomes Whiskey to complement his brother’s already apt name. Charlie is the more reserved of the two, Whiskey the adventurous, popular one. He’s slightly older, slightly taller, slightly better at golf, slightly more memorable in the playground. It is the slight edge that sets the two apart in a lifelong struggle for independence from the other. Charlie hopes that the family move from England to Australia when they are teenagers will give him a fresh start but his hopes are dashed. Whiskey is a hit in the new high school and he’s soon seeing the most glamorous girl in the year, Anneliese. That is until Charlie is assigned as Anneliese’s dance partner in the lead up lessons to the end of year ball and his foxtrot starts a series of events to gradually destroy the boys’ relationship:
‘Sure enough when Charlie got home, Whiskey was waiting for him, lying on his back on Charlie’s bed, legs crossed, arms behind his head.
Well, you’ve really done that dickhead Randall proud, he said, without even looking at Charlie.
How’s that? Charlie asked warily, putting down his schoolbag.
You’ve got the cunningest foxtrot going, Charlie. You certainly know how to steal another man’s chicken.’
The novel moves between the present and the past; we are told early in the piece that the adult Whiskey is in a coma after being hit by a car, and as family members come to the hospital we piece together the events that have lead them to the present. We learn the story of how another girlfriend comes between the adult Charlie and Whiskey, ‘Juliet, however was not like Whiskey’s other girls. She was a beauty, that part was true’ and how Whiskey’s travels through Peru lead him to a wife Rosa, who is a surprise to the family, and is a catalyst for bringing the brothers back into contact, ‘You and Whiskey are brothers, Charlie, she began. You are family, whether you like it or not. And your family is never going away’.
There are other revelations in the novel which thread the two way alphabet into the narrative, and while this conceit could have been twee, Smith has a deft touch, and the serious nature of the novel’s premise allows the concept to feel clever rather than naff. Smith understands the inner workings of families, and I think her portrait of Charlie was honest and unflinching: he’s not a very pleasant character at times. She shows us in Charlie the flaws that we have all fallen prey to in life: petty jealousy towards siblings and romantic rivals; fear that manifests itself as failure to take action; and fear towards major life commitments. I also thought Smith’s exploration of the hospital environment and the medical staff a family meets during the recovery period rang true. My grandmother recovered from a significant period in a coma and the emotional journey of the characters, described by Smith, was deeply relatable for me.
This is a very fine novel on what it means to be part of a family, and how we can grow from the intense but immature feelings of our youth into a more nuanced person in adulthood.
*This review is part of the Australian Womens Writers Challenge 2014