Jenny Ackland, Little gods (#BookReview)

Jenny Ackland, Little godsThe universe is telling me something. Jenny Ackland’s Little gods is the second novel I’ve read in a few months that is set in the Mallee region of northwestern Victoria, the other being Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys (my review). Interestingly, both are coming-of-age novels, both involve farms, and both have a death at the centre. However, this is where the similarity ends, because Ackland’s protagonist, Olive, is female – and younger than Archbold’s – and Ackland’s death is a mystery to Olive, whereas in Archbold’s novel it’s the mother’s death which precipitates the narrative.

There’s another difference too, and it’s that Mallee boys slots into YA fiction*, albeit also a good read for adults, whereas Ackland’s book, while seen primarily through Olive’s point of view, is adult fiction. This is because although it’s about Olive’s journey, the main focus is on the way children see adults and the way adults completely miss what is going on in children’s minds, on the decisions adults make about what to tell children and how children respond to what they sense isn’t being told.

So, the story. Set in the 1980s, it’s about Olive and her extended family in which two of the sisters, Audra and Rue, had married two brothers, Bruce and William, with a third sister and brother on each side left over. Thistle, the oldest (and left-over sister), lives with Rue and William and their three children, Sebastian, Archie and Mandy, on the sisters’ family farm. Audra and Bruce, with Olive, live close by in town. The action is split between the farm, which Olive’s family visits regularly, and Olive’s home in the neighbouring town.

The novel starts with a little un-named “prologue” which tells us that the book is about the year Olive turned 12, when she was “trapped in the savage act of growing up”. It’s about a time when, uncertain about what was going on, she reached back into her memory, only to find that memory can be deceptive. It all could have ended up far worse than it did. (We know it didn’t because here she is at the beginning, alive, apparently well, but contemplative!)

She is fierce

Anyhow, from this point, the novel proper starts with Olive knowing that the local community thinks her family – the whole family, I mean – “odd”, which entrenches her sense of outsiderness but also fires her sense of agency. The novel starts slowly, with the plot not picking up until we are well in. Before that, Olivia’s character and the family’s complicated relationships, particularly between the sisters, are carefully developed. Olive, we soon learn, is independent and, outwardly at least, sure of herself. She’s “fierce”, as the epigraph from Shakespeare warns us, and bosses her best friend, Peter, and her cousins around. But she is needy too. And for this there is Grace, a wild raven who provides her with the affection that she doesn’t get from her stylish but withdrawn mother. For all her faults, we like her.

And so, here’s Olive, on the cusp of adulthood, wanting to understand the world. She knows which adults in her life will nurture her, mainly Rue, and which are likely to answer her questions, and that’s mostly Thistle. However, Thistle has her own issues and sees life through a particular prism which is not always useful to Olive. It all starts to unravel when Olive finds pictures of her parents and Thistle all holding a baby which is not her. Through insistent questioning, she discovers that the baby had been her sister and had drowned. But, with no more details forthcoming, she decides the baby had been murdered and that she knows who is responsible. She determines on revenge, but needs help. Meanwhile, Thistle is working through her own lost baby problem … You could see this novel as a modern take on the Aussie “lost child” motif.

At times, as the narrative plays out, we are called on to suspend disbelief, but never quite beyond the point of no return. Some shocking things happen but others are diverted, so that by the end Olive has found some answers and also learnt some valuable lessons.

There are several joys in reading this book, one of which is the writing. Ackland’s descriptions of the Mallee, though brief, are evocative:

Sunday morning and the sun rose on the bleached Mallee landscape and lit the distressed greens and greys.

Even lovelier are the ways she captures people, their thoughts and relationships, particularly Olive’s of course:

Olive crept back to the bathroom. It was a startling thing to know that Cleg could be tender with Thistle the sister he seemed to like the least. Standing in front of the mirror it was as if there was an opening inside her mind. A plant, a tall one, with a green stem that was thick all the way around. At the top of it, a tightly bunched bloom, an enormous head of closed, wrapped petals. She didn’t know the colour of the flower yet but it was bright as if illuminated by special lights, and inside the heard of the flower was a quavering, shimmering sensation of coming movement and understanding.


Water also features throughout the novel, which is appropriate given the drowning, but it is also presented as a positive thing. For Olive, water provides respite. At the pool, “her body feels real in the water”, and, submerging herself in the dam she stays “under just to be in that cool distant place for a while longer.” The novel, in fact, opens and closes with references to Olive jumping off the high board – an effective image for the gutsy way she approached life, though the suggestion in the prologue is that having grown up she “was no longer a girl bombing off the high board.”

So, the book is about the challenges of growing up. Olive, the child, sees the world simplistically. People are “little gods” who “have power to do things, like make baddies pay”. She is shocked when lawyer Cleg sees it a little differently, is not so categorical about “bad people”. Ackland explores the clash between child and adult world views by teasing out responses to a family tragedy. As the secret comes out, as the truth is told, some family wounds heal and some lessons are learnt – but at what cost? I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

Oh, and as for what the universe is telling me … it’s that I need to make good my plan of some years’ standing to visit the Mallee!

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

AWW Badge 2018Jenny Ackland
Little gods
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760297114

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

* Mallee boys has just been commended as an Honour Book in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers Award

Jenny Ackland, The secret son (#BookReview)

Jenny Ackland, The secret sonMelbourne-based author Jenny Ackland has tried something rather audacious in her debut novel, The Secret Son. Instead of following the autobiographical route that many first novelists do, she has leapt right in and tackled, albeit from left field, one of Australia’s most controversial legends, Ned Kelly. But, here’s the rub: it’s not exactly about Ned Kelly. It’s far more complex than that.

The secret son spans more than a century, from the 1880s to 1990 and beyond. It is set in both Turkey and Australia, and it weaves two stories. One concerns the 19th-century-born James who ends up living in Turkey, having gone to fight at Gallipoli in 1915, and the other tells of Cem, a 23-year-old Turkish-Australian man who is related to the village where James had lived and who travels there in 1990, ostensibly to learn about his heritage and identity. These two men – James/Jim and Cem/”Jem” – work subtly as foils or parallels for each other. James is intelligent, gentle and hardworking, but somewhat passive. He imagines who his father might have been, what sort of man he was. Cem, on the other hand, is young, directionless, well-meaning but rather self-centred. Turkish taxi-driver, Ibrahim, pins his uncertainty immediately, telling him:

You must know who you are and what man you want to become.

What sort of man he wants to become is something Cem struggles with, making this, partly but by no means primarily, a coming-of-age novel.

This brings me to one of the delights in reading this book, which is Ackland’s depiction of life in the Turkish village she calls Hayat (Turkish, she says, for “heart”). It reminded me of some books I read years ago, such as Beverley Farmer’s stories set in a Greek village. Farmer had married a Greek man and lived for some time in Greece, which explained her convincing insight into village life and relationships. Ackland’s depictions were similarly convincing, so I wanted to know how she’d done it. I found the answer in an ABC Books and Arts interview with her. She too had travelled to Turkey, married a Turkish man, spent time there as a bride and young mother. With this knowledge and experience, and an ability to individuate characters, Ackland creates a world that engaged me.

But now you are probably wondering how Ned Kelly fits into all this. It has to do with a historian named Harry whom Cem meets on the plane. Harry has a theory that Ned Kelly had a secret son who fought at Gallipoli and ended up staying in Turkey. His quest is to prove this theory and, in one of those coincidences that all travellers know about, the village where he believes this son went to is the same one that Cem’s family was from. So the scene is set – but the story that unfolds has less to do with Ned Kelly than with families and secrets, paying debts, and growing up.

I started this post by saying that Ackland has been audacious in this, her debut novel, and I implied that it was because of the Ned Kelly plotline. However, her audaciousness extends beyond this. It’s in the novel’s complex structure, too, in the way she weaves the two men’s stories, to-ing and fro-ing in time. It’s in the recurring motifs like bees and honey, tea and sugar, and woven rugs, that she uses to help keep us grounded. And it’s particularly in the change of voice between the more traditional third person voice used for most of the story to first person for the perspective of Berna, who is the village’s wise woman-cum-fortune-teller. Berna also happens to be Cem’s grandmother and James’ daughter, which effectively connects the two story lines. (The family relationships in this book are, I must say, complicated, and require an attentive reader to keep track!)

Anyhow, Berna provides the main link in the novel’s second plot which is about the “debt” Cem discovers he is expected to pay for something his grandfather Ahmet had done long before he’d left the village for Australia. This plotline exposes dissension in the village, and through it Ackland explores ideas about love and loyalty, truth and lies, revenge and forgiveness, not to mention the application of wisdom versus tradition. As the novel progresses, more of the “truth” about what happened comes out, and the plot thickens as we wonder what will be asked of Cem and what he will do in response. Meanwhile, the Ned Kelly storyline weaves its own path between James, Harry, and the village with the help of a woman pilot called Linda. While complex, it’s sensitively done, with, in the end, enough resolution to be satisfying without being too neat and implausible.

There are many angles from which this book can be talked about, besides those I’ve mentioned. There’s a father-son theme, a cheeky metafictional theme about a book called The secret son, Cem’s family experience in Australia as a child of immigrants, and gender. There’s also the idea of debts due by later generations, which Berna argues is not valid, but which her brother Mehmet supports. It’s relevant, I think, that Berna has the last word in the novel.

Early on Berna tells us that “truth” is not the be-all, that sometimes “life is better with surprises in the recipe”. She’s a wise woman, and this, The secret son, is a wise book. It might be a debut novel, and it might push its readers to keep up at times, but the ideas it explores, and its tolerant, generous treatment of its flawed characters, are those of a humane writer.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) was impressed by the book too.

AWW Badge 2018Jenny Ackland
The secret son
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015
ISBN: 9781925266160