Fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 352 pages; 2018.
Even at twelve Olive had known that others thought her family odd. Those Lovelocks, people would say, their looks loaded with meaning. They said it in the butcher, the supermarket and the haberdashery. They said it in the milk bar and in the playground at school.
So begins Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods, an evocative coming of age story set in Victoria’s mallee region during the 1980s.
Told in the third person but largely from Olive’s perspective, we are introduced to that “odd” family: Audra and Rue, two “prickly” sisters from the pioneering Nash family who married two sheep-farming brothers, William and Bruce Lovelock. An older Nash sister, the impossibly named Thistle, never married; and a third Lovelock brother, the not-well-liked Cleg, escaped the farm for life as a lawyer in the city, but returns home occasionally towing a rundown caravan with him.
Olive lives in a small rural town with her parents, Audra and Bruce. On the edge of that town lies the sheep farm where Rue and William live with their three children — Sebastian, Archie and Mandy — and the tiny-bit kooky Thistle. The two families are close and Olive spends a lot of time on the farm with her cousins, climbing trees, riding bikes, swimming in the dam and playing with a tame raven called Grace (hence the image on the cover of the book). She also hangs out with Thistle, who is troubled — for reasons that become clear later in the book — but good fun, one of those rare adults who doesn’t treat her like a baby.
Thistle is the key to the story, for when Olive discovers a photograph of a red-headed baby whom she doesn’t recognise it is her Aunt who reveals the child’s identity when everyone else refuses to engage. This sets into motion a chain of events that will have tragic repercussions on the entire family.
A headstrong girl
From the start we learn that Olive, “caught in the savage act of growing up”, is headstrong, intrepid and occasionally cruel. She’s the ringleader in almost every activity she participates in, whether on the farm with her cousins, or in town with her best friend, Peter, the son of the local policeman. She has absolutely no fear of the town’s bullies, the thug-like Sand brothers, and often stands up to them even though they are much older than herself.
It’s this fierce attitude and a desperate need to figure things out for herself that lands her in trouble. She might only be 12 but Olive thinks she knows best. When she discovers the baby in the photograph is her younger sister who drowned, she’s convinced that the adults in her family are hiding things from her, that “she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue”. That “nucleus”, she decides, is murder, and so she plans to find out the culprit and then plots ways to extract her revenge.
But like all good coming-of-age stories, Olive learns that life is not always black and white. She might find childhood frustrating, but she soon discovers that being an adult comes with its own set of complications and that it’s sometimes best not to ask too many questions and to just let things lie…
I’ll admit that I did not expect to much like this story. Coming-of-age tales and family secrets just don’t do it for me anymore, probably because I’ve just read far too many of them. But I was pleasantly surprised by Little Gods — the title comes from the idea that people are little gods who have power to do things — because it’s told in a refreshingly honest way.
It moves along at an unhurried pace, giving the narrative time to breathe, and the characters, all wonderfully colourful and distinctive (except, perhaps, for the men, who are merely shadows in the background), come to life through snappy dialogue, which includes everything from petty arguments to gossip and back again.
Olive is a revelation. She’s a quintessential rural Australian girl, a wonderful mix of toughness and curiosity.
And I loved the “atmosphere” of the novel, a kind of Australian gothic, not dissimilar to Donna Tartt’s The Little Friend. It’s the kind of book you can settle down with for an entire day and get immediately lost in the richly vivid world that Ackland has created.
This is my 3rd book for #AWW2019 and my 2nd for the 2019 Stella Prize shortlist. Sadly, it doesn’t appear to have been published outside of Australia. I bought my copy when I was in Western Australia last month.