Nigel Featherstone, My heart is a little wild thing (#BookReview)

In late May, I reported on the Canberra launch of Nigel Featherstone’s latest novel, My heart is a little wild thing – and now I bring you my thoughts on this finely-observed book about a man’s reaching for his own life.

I’m going to start with a reflection on a question authors of books like this commonly get, which is, is the book autobiographical? In his launch, Nigel said that the book is not about him, but that things in his life – particularly the death of his mother – did inspire him. The book’s protagonist Patrick is clearly not Nigel, as those who have followed Nigel through his various social media accounts will know. Nigel, unlike the semi-closeted Patrick, has been in a committed relationship for over two decades, and Nigel, unlike Patrick, broke away from home and did forge his own life. At the launch, Nigel said that this book explores what his life might have looked like had he “obeyed his mother”, who didn’t want him to be a writer or to love men.

This novel then, is not his life, but it nonetheless draws on much from his life. For example, like Patrick, Nigel grew up in upper North Shore Sydney and frequented that city’s northern beaches. I enjoyed this because I spent my teen years in the same area, albeit a decade or so ahead of Nigel. I am also familiar with the other two main settings in the novel, the Southern Highlands and the Monaro, and am drawn to both, as I know Nigel is. Like Nigel’s Patrick, I do not really know why I so love the Monaro except, perhaps, because the favourite landscapes of my childhood were those wide open plains of outback Queensland. There is something captivating about them, even though, as Patrick, somewhat prophetically, writes of the Monaro,

It was all wide-screen barrenness, the only embellishment the fence lines, which cut across the tussocky landscape like tripwires.

Patrick shares other interests with Nigel, particularly music. Again, if you follow Nigel, you will know how important it is to him. He has, in fact, composed his own song-cycle. So, when he describes the music created by Lewis, the man Patrick meets, these descriptions, too, feel authentic.

But, despite all these similarities which ground the book so well in lived experience, Patrick is clearly not Nigel. As I listened to Nigel speak at the launch, and as I read the book, I was reminded of a favourite quote from Marion Halligan’s wise novel, Fog garden. The narrator writes about her character Clare:

She isn’t me. She’s a character in fiction. And like all such characters she makes her way through the real world which her author invents for her. She tells the truth as she sees it, but may not always be right.

And this, too, is Patrick.

“a fence I had crossed”

My heart is a little wild thing starts dramatically with Patrick heading off from Bundanoon to the Monaro in a distressed state the day after he’d “tried to kill his mother”. The actuality isn’t quite as bad as it sounds but Patrick, in his mid-40s, had been pushed to the limit by his demanding mother for whom, of her three children, he had pretty much sole responsibility. He needed out, a break, and so after the incident referred to in the opening paragraph, he drives to a steading (or barn) on a place called Jimenbuen, where he had spent many happy family holidays as a child.

Nigel explained at the launch that Jimenbuen is based on a little heritage-listed barn in Bobundra, on the Monaro near the foothills of the Snowy Mountains. It was when staying there that Nigel’s book finally took shape, and it is at Jimenbuen that Patrick finally takes a step towards a new life, when he decides to offer to help a man he has spied planting trees on the other side of the fence. That man is Lewis, and the rest, as they say, is history – except, of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that, because the course of true love rarely runs smooth, in fiction or in life.

However, we follow Patrick as he experiences real love for the first time in his life, and we continue to watch as Lewis returns to his life in Ireland while Patrick returns to his mother. How will it all resolve? That is not for me to share here.

The novel is about many things, but an overriding idea is that of freedom. It is signalled on the third page of the novel when, en route to Jimenbuen, Patrick describes the “odd choices” he’d made of CDs for the trip. “Perhaps”, he wonders, “they reminded me of a time when I felt free”. Three pages further on, Patrick explains that, prior to the incident, he had been planning a short getaway to Sydney, because it was a place where he “could be free”. The idea of freedom recurs throughout the novel. Nearly two-thirds through, he remembers a past conversation with his father, who had told him, “We must live our own lives”. Patrick, at the time, doesn’t fully understand this, fearing it’s “selfish”. And yet, intriguingly, near the end of the novel, Lewis tells Patrick about having seen him, when they were still boys, at a waterhole. Given how Patrick’s life had proceeded, it’s ironic, but Lewis says:

I saw you as neither male nor female, just someone who looked free. I can’t think of anyone more attractive than a person who knows how to be free, and who’s taken risks to be free.

Related to this idea of freedom are those of happiness and living life fully, all of which are encompassed in the novel’s epigraph, Verlaine’s “To live again, undying”. Through Patrick, Nigel explores just what this means – the balances, compromises, and the lines we need to draw every day to live good but true lives.

The novel explores other ideas too, including ageing, and the responsibility of children for caring for ageing parents. Nigel makes clear that this is not a one-way street. Parents need to meet their children half-way. They need to recognise that no matter how loving or dutiful their child is, that child also deserves respect and to be able live their lives. A balance must be struck. Patrick, we see, gives and gives and gives to his mother, and receives little in return.

Ultimately though, the book is about the power of love and friendship, something that is subtly underpinned by references to a favourite novel that Patrick rediscovers at Jimenbuen. The novel is – and some of you will also surely know and love it – Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, about a damaged man and the love he finds and expresses.

During the book’s launch, Nigel talked about the value of fearless writing, which he also wrote about in his essay on Christos Tsiolkas (my post). It’s about being audacious and true – to yourself, your characters and your writing. Nigel has achieved that here, particularly in the way he explores, explicitly but sensitively, the complicated relationship between sensuality and sexuality, love and desire as Patrick reaches for the life that will sustain him.

My heart is a little wild thing is another of Nigel’s warm-hearted, character-focused books that deal with the complexity of family and relationships, and how we live our lives. The heart might be a little wild thing, but this book is a little beautiful thing – and not so little at that.

Nigel Featherstone
My heart is a little wild thing
Gadigal Country/Ultimo: Ultimo Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781761150135

21 thoughts on “Nigel Featherstone, My heart is a little wild thing (#BookReview)

  1. I’m glad you’ve reviewed this. I borrowed it from the library but it was when I had covid…
    I got up to page 62 and realised I couldn’t remember anything of what I’d read, so I sent it back to the library (where there were a million reserves waiting for it) with a view to trying again when my brain was working properly again!

  2. I can’t bring myself to like the title (you may remember that I have A Thing about titles).
    But the book sounds as if it reads very well !

  3. I did love this book, WG, and you have reviewed it beautifully. Featherstone just gets better and better and with this little wild thing he’s excelled himself yet again.

  4. Lovely review, Sue. I adored this book and was completely immersed in it. Nigel writes beautifully (as do you), and I really felt and experienced Patrick’s srtuggles and joys, especially the sections set on the Monaro. thanks for you sensitive insights.

    • Thanks so much Karen. I think those of us who love the Monaro got extra enjoyment out of this lovely novel. I’m thinking of doing a separate post just on the Monaro descriptions.

  5. It’s interesting how much we talk about whether an author’s book is autobiographical. On the one hand, we’re often taught to “tell it slant” because your own story is what you know best, but you don’t need to write about yourself in a straightforward fashion. On the other hand, 10 or so years ago I read an article about the rise in how many books are now starring a first-person narrator. What happened to 3rd-person, the columnist wondered. She’d gathered stats, and yep, it’s going up. I half wondered if part of the problem, if we want to call it that, is there are so many MFA programs that require large amounts of writing, and perhaps students are tending to write more about themselves and calling it fiction than writers had in the past. That’s just a theory.

    • Interesting comment Melanie. I have commented before too on the rise of first person. I have no idea what’s stimulated it, but you could be right. I like first person when it “feels” right because it can provide a lovely sense of immediacy and engagement but I have been saying for a while now that it’s being overdone. It can be a limiting voice because it can make it hard to step back and see the bigger picture if you are too much in the head of a self-involved character.

      The autobiographical issue is such as interesting one. We have an author, Helen Garner, who was panned for writing her life. As you say, telling what you know is the advice but I think part of that is “what part of what you know”? Your actual life? Your values? Your issues and concerns? As Nigel explained – and shows here – he was exploring, in a way, that sliding door – how might life had gone if he (and young people in general) not broken away from parental wishes and expectations.

      Perhaps this eager looking for autobiography is a side effect of celebrity culture? People looking for the goss?

      • Hmmm….I’m not sure what readers are looking for. I took a grad class around 2004 where we learned about different literary lenses, including studying the author’s life before reading his/her book to analyze the work based on the author’s experiences. I need to reread that textbook (I still have it) as a bunch of literary theory has fallen out of my head (or, as my 6-year-old niece says, “My brain declined that transaction”).

        Perhaps readers are looking for gossip or hope to understand a favorite author better? I believe it’s easier to write in first-person because you can simply put yourself in the character’s shoes and largely make decisions from your own morals and guidance, but that makes for some pretty boring stories. Sounds more like a tool for a first draft. I know sometimes folks are asked to rewrite an entire manuscript in a different POV before it can be approved and published because editors want to see how that changes the story.

        • I’d like to know the name of that book Melanie.

          I imagine it probalby is easier to write in first person. I have heard many authors talk about changing voice – from first to third or vice versa – as they’ve been writing because they felt one or other wasn’t working. Those books are usually good – not that you always know that that’s been the case – because it’s usually clear that the voice is right. I like hearing authors talk about voice.

        • The book is called The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends by David Richter. There are many editions; it looks like it’s been a go-to text since the 1980s. Based on when I took the class, my copy must by the 1999 edition.

  6. Like Lisa I read Nigel’s book during my Covid isolation, but unlike Lisa I devoured it in 24hrs. It was just what I needed at that time – a gentle, heartfelt, thoughtful story with beautiful descriptions of the Monaro and love. Unfortunately due to Covid, it only got a minireview post from me, but I finished by saying that it “is a story about the small acts of bravery and love we incorporate into our lives every day”.
    Thank you for giving this story the review space it really deserves. I’m sure you made Nigel’s day 🙂

    • Oh Brona … did I miss your mini-review or just forget it? I’ll come read it. I’m so glad another of my blogging friends read and enjoyed it. I’m guessing that as a fellow road-trip enthusiast you loved the place descriptions like I did – in addition to the lovely warm-hearted and, as you say, thoughtful story.

        • Understand completely . COVID Was enervating, even for me who recovered very quickly. I read it during COVID too, but wrote the post from notes afterwards. But I have a bit more time than you, and got over COVID faster!

  7. Pingback: WILD THING DIARY 8: early notices, what I’m reading, and on the road again soon | Under the counter or a flutter in the dovecote

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