January 17, 2012 by markstani
In 2001, Ben Rice’s eighty-nine page novella, Pobby and Dingan, briefly lit up the literary world. Rice’s deceptively simple story of a young girl in the Australian Outback who loses her imaginary friends drew rave reviews. Writing in the Guardian, Robert McCrum said: ‘With Pobby and Dingan, Ben Rice makes a strong claim to be a leader of the new generation. This novel marks one of those debuts that may well turn out to have been of the greatest significance.’
Rice was included in Granta’s list of the twenty best young British novelists. A film version of the story, ‘Opal Dream’, and co-written by Rice, was released to decent acclaim in 2006.
Pobby and Dingan is the tale of two siblings, Kellyanne and Ashmol Williamson. Kellyanne finds escape from the reality of everyday life in their rough, tough mining town by conjuring adventures with her two imaginary friends. So consumed is Kellyanne that her mother sets places for them at the table every mealtime. The novel begins:
Kellyanne opened the car door and crawled into my bedroom. Her face was puffy and pale and fuzzed-over. She just came in and said, ‘Ashmol! Pobby and Dingan are maybe-dead!’ That’s how she said it.
‘Good,’ I said. ‘Perhaps you’ll grow up now and stop being such a fruit-loop.’
Tears started sliding down her face. But I wasn’t feeling any sympathy, and neither would you if you’d grown up with Pobby and Dingan.
‘Pobby and Dingan aren’t dead,’ I said, hiding my anger in a swig from my can of Mello Yello. ‘They never existed. Things that never existed can’t be dead. Right?’
Kellyanne’s world is shattered one day when Pobby and Dingan disappear, on the same day her father is accused of ‘ratting’ – one of the worst crimes an opal miner can commit – by his workmates. As Kellyanne takes to her bed, and her family is embroiled in increasing strife, it becomes clear that Ashmol’s only hope of finding them is if he also starts to believe they are real.
It’s a fantastic story about family and loyalty and the power of trust. But the ‘significant debut’ McCrum predicted has remained just that. Bibliographies suggest Rice wrote a second novel, ‘Etiquette’, in 2007, but there is no record of it. In 2010, he is credited with a video short, Bikes, by the Independent Movie Database. If Pobby and Dingan is to remain Rice’s only foray into fiction writing, it will stand as a fine testament to his talent. But at the same time it would be a great pity.