‘Pieces of a Girl’ by Charlotte Wood

Pieces of a girl

Fiction – paperback; Picador; 192 pages; 1999.

Many people will know Australian writer Charlotte Wood as the author of the award-winning The Natural Way of Things, which was published in the UK in 2016.

Pieces of a Girl is her debut novel, published by Pan Macmillan Australia in 1999 after it won the 1998 Jim Hamilton Award for an unpublished manuscript.

The blurb on my edition describes it as “one of the most moving and original novels to have emerged from Australia in recent years” — almost 20 years later, I’d have to concur.

Enigmatic novel

This elusive, fragmentary and enigmatic novel is written in rich, hypnotic prose that has a dream-like quality to it (not dissimilar to her follow-up novel, The Submerged Cathedral, which first introduced me to Wood’s beautiful writing). The structure of the book also adds to that dream-like feeling, because it depicts the inner world of a 32-year-old woman called Ivy, whose memory shifts between different time periods, including the present day, in line with her mood and state of mind.

Ivy is a picture researcher who is obsessed with anatomical photographs. She is married to a much older man, an academic who seems more interested in the orangutans of Borneo than in her. He’s so dismissive of her work, which he sees as a hobby, he moves her study from the downstairs dining room into the poky unused bedroom up in the eaves, where he invariably thinks it should remain hidden.

The focus of the novel switches between Ivy’s current uneasy life with Professor Linford, her childhood with a domineering and mentally troubled mother, and her teenage years in the care of an “accidental” father called Victor.

Spoiler alert!

I’m going to break one of my usual rules and introduce a spoiler here, because chances are you may never get to read this book (it’s currently out of print and used copies are hugely expensive). But jump to the final paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens.

For much of Ivy’s childhood, her mother tries to pass her off as a boy.

Wrapskin it is called, when she swathes me in the clothes of a boy. Time for wrapskin when we dress me in the morning gloom, her fingers picking wrapskins from the bed like flowers, wrapskinning me in them.

It is this thwarting of identity that causes Ivy to feel as if she’s unworthy of love, to feel as if she is merely “pieces of a girl” and may partly explain why she is so obsessed with anatomical pictures of the human body.

It’s only when Ivy, unhappily married and in need of answers, goes in search of Victor that her past and present collide — with an unexpected, but also satisfying, resolution.

Sadly, Pieces of a Girl is no longer in print. I sourced my used copy online a couple of years ago. I’ve just checked on Bookfinder.com to see what availability is like and I’m afraid that used copies range in price from £15 to more than £200! Maybe check your library first…

This is my 10th book for #AWW2018

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15 thoughts on “‘Pieces of a Girl’ by Charlotte Wood

    • I was actually in two minds about reviewing this knowing that most of my readership will never have the opportunity to read it for themselves. But i’m a completist and she’s one of my favourite authors and I had read all her other stuff, so…

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I’ve never even heard of it! (And I’m surprised Macmillan haven’t reissued it, though as far as I know they don’t do a classics series of their authors’ backlists.)

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    • Pleased to bring it to your attention, Lisa. And yes, you’d think some clever publisher would reissue all her work but I think she’s signed to Allen & Unwin now so perhaps they don’t have rights to this one?

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  2. It hadn’t occurred to me to look for Woods’ earlier work, ignorant of me given how much I enjoyed TNWOT. So I for one (for many I suspect) am glad you reviewed Pieces and will hassle my bookshop as soon as I can.

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    • I’ve read all her books now and have never been disappointed. There’s some common themes, I think, largely to do with personal identity and family.

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  3. I’ve been trying to get a hold of this for so long… my library doesn’t have it and haven’t seen it in any second hand bookstores. Fingers crossed it comes my way someday (so just in case, I didn’t read your spoiler!).

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    • My Amazon account reveals that I spent 0.88p buying this secondhand in April 2016. Today the cheapest secondhand copy you can get online is £19!! Keep looking in op shops… it’s bound to turn up eventually.

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    • All her books, bar this one, are in print, but the only one published in the UK is The Natural Way Of Things, which won the Stella Prize in 2017, a book I highly recommend.

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