Useful – Debra Oswald

Useful – Debra Oswald

Title: Useful
Author: Debra Oswald
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Publisher: Penguin Australia
Publication Date: 28 January 2015
Pages: 320
Rating: 4/5 stars


Sullivan Moss is useless.

Once a charming underachiever, he’s now such a loser that he can’t even commit suicide properly. Waking up in a hospital after falling the wrong way on a rooftop, he comes to a decision. He shouldn’t waste perfectly good organs just because they’re attached to his head. After a life of regrets, Sully wants to do one useful thing: he wants to donate a kidney to a stranger.

As he scrambles over the hurdles to become a donor, Sully almost accidentally forges a new life for himself. Sober and employed, he makes new friends, not least radio producer Natalie and her son Louis, and begins to patch things up with old ones, like his ex-best mate Tim. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of him.

But altruism is not as easy as it seems. Just when he thinks he’s got himself together, Sully discovers that he’s most at risk of falling apart.

From the creator of Offspring comes a smart, moving and wry portrait of one man’s desire to give something of himself.

I haven’t watched the show ‘Offspring’, for which Debra Oswald is famous, and I will admit that I picked up this book more to fill my Australian author quota (and because there was a proof copy at work) than out of an actual interest in the topic. But I enjoyed myself immensely. The blurb doesn’t lie – this is indeed a smart, moving and wry portrayal of one man’s struggle with mental illness.

We are immersed in the lives of Sullivan and Natalie, who remain our protagonists throughout the novel. Sully we meet as he is trying to commit suicide, Natalie as she removes the body of her dead father from his neighbour’s apartment into his own. For both, this is a low point.

The narrative voices follow these two, plus Sully’s ex-best friend Tim and Tim’s wife Juliet. While the voices meshed well, I would have enjoyed the story more without the intrusions of Tim and Juliet – or perhaps if there were more chapters from their perspective, it would have coordinated better.

Sully is a fantastic character – beyond hope but still loveable. He feels that he has taken too much from those who loved him and now wants to repay the universe by donating a kidney. His notion to become useful is ultimately his saviour, as he quits drinking, gets fit, becomes employed and sees a psychiatrist along the road to fulfilling his goal.

Sydney was a great setting for this story and it was fun to imagine the characters in places familiar to me. It made them more real. I don’t often read books set in Sydney and was interested by how much the setting affected my enjoyment of the story itself.

Sully moves into Natalie’s father’s flat, mostly as a dog-sitter. Mack is a gorgeous one-eyed dog, but he can’t move in with Natalie because her son has severe asthma. It is during the scenes with the dog that Sully truly seems to heal and gives him a sense of responsibility for his own life.

While the book wasn’t an ideal representation of mental illness – the hospital seemed to get rid of Sully very quickly after his suicide attempt and he wasn’t offered much support from the health system – it was a novel way at dissecting our value to society as human beings.

I hope to read more from Debra Oswald in the future, as her wit was heart-warming and her characters so familiar. A truly enjoyable Australian read.


One thought on “Useful – Debra Oswald

  1. That sounds like a great book and if you can get it for me I would like to read it once I have finished reading the Kurt Fearnly book.

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