(Allen & Unwin)
In the early months of 2016, when I was spending every day in the reading room of the State Library of Western Australia, I would take a lunch break, sit in the library’s cafe with my pot of tea, and read. It might seem like a strange way to counter reading fatigue with, well, reading, but I found it enormously rejuvenating to step away from the archives and into another world. One of the books I read, and loved, during this time was Jenny Ackland’s first novel, The Secret Son, so I was excited to hear that she had a new one coming out.
Jenny, a Melbourne-based writer and teacher, describes The Secret Son (2015) as a ‘Ned Kelly–Gallipoli “mash-up” about truth and history’. It is also a deeply evocative novel of place (Turkey), with a fascinating cast of characters and a plot that weaves past and present together with the intricacy of a fine Turkish rug. She talks about it here, and you can read reviews by Sue at Whispering Gums and Lisa at ANZ LitLovers.
It was my great pleasure to meet Jenny again in Perth last year, when she was hard at work completing Little Gods at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers Centre in Greenmount. And now the novel has made its way into the world and is already gathering stellar press reviews. You can read Nicole Melanson’s review on her WordMothers blog here.
The blurb for Little Gods reads…
The setting is the Mallee, wide, flat scrubland in north-western Victoria, country where men are bred quiet, women stoic and the gothic is never far away. Olive Lovelock has just turned twelve. She is smart, fanciful and brave, and on the cusp of something darker than the small world she has known her entire life. When she learns she had a baby sister who died, Olive becomes convinced it was murder. Her obsession with the mystery, and quest to find out what happened, have seismic repercussions for the rest of the family and their community.
Little Gods is about the mess of family, about secrets, vengeance and innocence lost. It explores resilience and girlhood, and question how families live with all of their complexities and contradictions.
Over, now, to Jenny…
2 things that inspired my book
1 A news article
Years ago, I clipped an article from an Australian newspaper about a Victorian woman who had grown up thinking she was responsible—when she was a child—for the death of her baby sister. As it turned out, her mother had killed the baby and blamed her daughter. This was revealed with a clichéd deathbed confession, but the whole thing struck me as super tragic and super horrible. It sent me down a rabbit hole of research into infanticide, how mothers are depicted in fiction, looking at representation of sad, bad and ‘mad’ mothers. Twisted fairy-tales, Medea. All very dark. I decided upon a similar core for my novel: the historical death of a baby and an unfolding story taking place several years later. First versions of the book were very grim. One early reader said I was ‘saturating the reader in death’, which made me realise I’d taken it too far into a place that wasn’t ultimately fitting for these characters and the type of story I wanted to create. I scaled it back, brought the story back into the light. I located the moments of childhood joy and freedom. I wanted my book to have humour in it as well. I think humour offsets darker stuff; it not only makes it more palatable but in a weird way somehow accentuates the seriousness. Like sugar in a savoury dish when cooking, or salted caramel.
Nothing specific that was nostalgic inspired me, it was more that I wanted to try to enter that psychological space with this book. There is such warmth in nostalgia: it is comforting and for me has an orange tinge, maybe because of old sepia photographs. People are wary of it, though. According to many, it’s not cool to give oneself over to such dirty urges; it’s indulgent and should be in the bin with sentimentalism. I came across some scholarly articles online that focus on nostalgia as part of the migrant experience, suggesting that it can result from populations feeling uprooted and unsure; that the profound sense of loss and longing can be part of that new life experience. Similarly, the stepping across from childhood to adolescence and then into to adulthood can be dislocating and hard. You are in a new country—adolescence and then adulthood—new terrain that can be challenging. And we can’t go back, so we yearn for those times when things were simpler. I read recently too that nostalgia is stronger for people leaving childhood, not adults, which is fascinating.
2 places connected with my book
1 Geographical—the Mallee
I have a strong and inexplicable attraction to the Mallee. I love the wide flatness of Victoria’s Western District. I love the colours of the flora and how the roads sit straight and flat on the landscape. The dry yellowness. When I was rewriting this novel (long story short: the manuscript had been finished many, many times, but I ripped out two thirds and rewrote over a year or more), I came to wonder whether I could introduce some gothic elements; not the dark tropes of the US Southern or English gothic literature, but a ‘Mallee-illuminated’ version, with eucalypts and pines instead of Spanish Moss, and an abandoned silo instead of a castle. There’s a raven, and a ouija board, and villains and ghosts, but all of it is set against a bright sunlit palette.
I found myself interested in the idea of liminal spaces, especially the crossover line between girlhood and adulthood. This led me to think more about lines; of the spaces and roles people can find themselves in. How we perform as humans, according to the rules. How children view adult-world and how easily adults seem to forget what it was to be young. How distant they make themselves just through age, and how inaccessible emotionally. Girls with strong personalities are squashed in multitudes of ways, so I wanted to depict a girl in that in-between place as she is just at the point of crossing over, just before the realities of the world hit her. A girl who is strong-minded and thinks she knows everything but in fact has little self-awareness.
2 favourite passages
This is Olive Lovelock, leaving the local pool with her friend Peter, in the early pages of the novel:
They were walking to the bike rack. Olive balanced her towel in a sheik roll on top of her head and Peter flicked his fingers in a way that made them crack. He counted under his breath each time he did it: Whone, twhoo, thuree, foah, fahv.
He was always doing things with his body. Jumping on things, climbing things, skipping over or under or trying to walk in funny ways, kicking his legs up high or bent so far over that his palms touched the footpath in front of his feet. Olive thought it was stupid and they’d had an argument. He tried to say she used to like those things, that she had used to laugh, and she told him she never had. Never.
At the entrance, people were pushing out through the gates, families going to their station wagons in the car park, weary but happy as if a good day’s work had been done. For Olive, it was more than that. Being at the pool, she was real. Her body was real in the water, the way it enclosed her with its vivid blueness. Her fingers were real as they opened the plastic wrapper of a smooth-bottomed pie or pulled an icy pole out of its sticky paper sheath. She was real lying on the hot concrete with her stomach and leg tops almost burning, water outlining her body in small warming puddles. The pool was one of the places where she came into her body and she wished she could stay there forever. She always held back in the real as long as she was able, whether at the pool or in Peter’s backyard or astride her bike at the park. She tried to stay as long as she could in all of those other places but eventually she had to leave the real. She had to leave those places and go home.
Grace, the raven that Olive finds and raises:
Sunday morning and the sun rose on the bleached Mallee landscape and lit the distressed greens and greys. The magpies carolled before they left their trees to feed and the farmhouse began to stir. Grace was at the back door knocking on the glass. She had been under Rue’s sprinkler and as she sat on Olive’s lap, her feathers looked like they’d been sewn with dozens of tiny diamonds. Drops of water, sitting in perfectly round jewels.
When Olive held Grace’s tail feathers in her hand, there was a soft sharpness to the edge against her palm, the interleaving feathers cross-hatched as they narrowed from the body to the tail. With her face right down close, looking on an angle, she could see that the feathers were not solid black at all. There were secret colours hidden, all types of purples and greens, and like petrol in a puddle they were iridescent, oily and beautiful.
*Author photograph: Julian Dolman