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.
My heart is a little wild thing
Gadigal Country/Ultimo: Ultimo Press, 2022