Fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 256 pages; 2022.
Adriane Howell’s novel Hydra is all kinds of strange and wonderful, an artful blend of Australian Gothic and black comedy, with a dash of sad girl tale and folklore thrown in for good measure.
It is the least predictable thing I have read in a long time and it wrong-footed me at almost every turn. This is a good thing because I love it when a story takes me in an unfamiliar direction and throws up surprises in unexpected places.
The quirky story is narrated by Anja, a young Melbourne-based antiquarian specialising in mid-century furniture. She works in an auction house that runs estate auctions, “ransacking dead people’s houses” to profiteer from their good furniture and valuable belongings.
When we first meet her we learn she is grieving the death of her mother. Her short-lived marriage has also broken down following a holiday to the Greek island of Hydra. And she’s constantly bickering with her rival at work, Fran, who provokes her by sitting in her seat and making snide comments about her attire.
Anja, it seems, holds grudges, is cynical and bad-tempered. But she does dream big and wants to advance her career by introducing a new taxonomic system for buyers and sellers in which furniture is classified on the emotional response it evokes — suggesting Anja is either naive or narcissistic.
Then, when she behaves badly at work, tussling with a client over a rare (and supposedly famous) chair that she refuses to sell, she loses her job.
Taking the small inheritance she has from her mother, she flees the city and moves into a secluded cottage on the fringes of a naval base. She dreams of growing her own vegetables and living a quiet life, but the lack of internet access and the sudden appearance of strange “gifts” — foul-smelling human excrement, a mangled rabbit with its guts spilling out — on her doorstep puts paid to that idea.
Her isolation now begins to feel claustrophobic and her behaviour becomes increasingly unpredictable and unhinged. The demons within and the demons outwith seem to be conspiring against her.
Anja’s narrative, which features elements of backstory, including her ill-fated trip to Greece, is interspersed with classified naval documents, hinting at a mysterious investigation dating back to 1986. When the two narrative threads come together, the “a-ha!” moment it delivers is a delicious revelation.
Hydra is a truly original and entertaining read. In its depiction of a woman losing her grip on reality, it reminded me a little of Meg Mason’s Sorrow and Bliss and Ella Baxter’s New Animal. But it’s a refreshing take on an urban myth and deserves wide plaudits — and maybe, just maybe, Australia’s top literary prize for women writers.
For other takes on this novel, please see Kate’s review and Lisa’s review.
This is my second book for the 2023 Stella Prize. I am trying to read as many as I can from the shortlist before the winner is named on 27 April 2023.
6 thoughts on “‘Hydra’ by Adriane Howell”
I knew you’d like this!
Ha! Yes, I really loved this one. And having grown up with that myth (or ones like it) it did resonate.
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Yes, I knew the myth too.
I loved the depiction of the inane rivalry between the young women…
This sounds really interesting.
Oh, it’s wonderful! Quite bonkers in places but also blackly funny. And just a tiny bit sad.
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