The Cockroach War

by Jonathan Harlen

Published by Allen and Unwin

201 pages, 2003





Attack of the Bugs

Reviewed by Sue Bursztynski


"Let me introduce you to the worst neighbours you've ever met," says Toby Judge, the young narrator of The Cockroach War, going on to assure the reader that no matter how awful his or her current neighbors are, they're nothing compared with the totally dreadful Cadwalladers.

The Cockroach War is about the neighbors from hell or, at least, about the transformation of how a nice family can transform into the neighbors from hell, when the circumstances are right.

The Cadwalladers are a perfectly pleasant family to begin with. They get on with their neighbors, the Judges, in the pleasant middle/working class suburb in which both families live. Toby plays with Ian and Shaun Cadwallader and considers them close friends. They play football and enjoy barbecues together and the children all go to the same state primary school.

And then, disaster strikes: the Cadwalladers win 40 million dollars in a lottery. The once-friendly family members suddenly turn into wealthy snobs, apart from the mother, Beverly. (Beverly doesn't change personality because the shock of her win has sent her first into a glazed-eyed state where she sees and hears nothing around her, then a regression to babyhood.) It gets worse, though, when the Cadwalladers' ordinary suburban home is pulled down and replaced with a huge mansion. The noise is ceaseless: first the building, day and night, then the parties. Dick Cadwallader, the father of the family, hands bribes to the council to make sure nobody can put in a complaint. Next door, the Judges are going slowly crazy. But Toby's sister, Emma, is a scientific genius, with a particular interest in insects. And Emma isn't going to take this lying down. She is determined to drive the Cadwalladers away, even if it means sending out an army of cockroaches...

Despite the fact that this novel is aimed at children, there are plenty of chuckles for adults. It's unquestionably over-the-top in style. Really, who can take seriously the notion of an army of remote-controlled cockroaches and hornets? But children will love the disgusting images of cockroaches getting into all the food and crawling over party guests next door, and the author knows this and takes full advantage. It is not for nothing that Roald Dahl and Paul Jennings are so very popular; kids love the grottiness factor. Adult readers will need to suspend disbelief while enjoying the satire and the bizarreness of the whole thing, from Dick Cadwallader's dollar-decorated shirt and helicopter to the vulgar mansion he builds.

There is something strangely filmic in the style of this yarn. Reading it, one can almost see it as one of the recent crop of Australian comedies that have been doing so well both in Australia and overseas. The theme of this one is universal enough, if somewhat exaggerated (deliberately): money can bring out the worst in anyone. Yet despite his huge wealth, we learn, Dick would give it all up to have his wife back as she was; having the money to employ a nurse to look after her just isn't the same as having the woman he loves with him. There's a message there, too, though Dick isn't allowed to keep the reader's sympathy for long.

This is one of a number of humorous children's novels by Jonathan Harlen, including a couple about the Judge family. You have to wonder how he will manage to top the craziness of this one, but it should be interesting to find out. Recommended, as long as you can switch off your brain and enjoy the silliness. | November 2003


Sue Bursztynski is a children's and fantasy writer and librarian based in Australia.