Title: Little Gods
Author: Jenny Ackland
Genre: Literary Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 28th March 2018
Synopsis: A rare, original and stunning novel about a remarkable girl who learns the hard way that the truth doesn’t always set you free – with echoes of Jasper Jones, Seven Little Australians and Cloudstreet.
As a child, trapped in the savage act of growing up, Olive had sensed she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue. But like looking at her own nose for too long, everything became blurry and she had to pull away. She’d reached for happiness as a child not yet knowing that the memories she was concocting would become deceptive. That memories get you where they want you not the other way around.
The setting is the Mallee, wide flat scrubland in north-western Victoria, country where men are bred quiet, women stoic and the gothic is never far away. Olive Lovelock has just turned twelve. She is smart, fanciful and brave and on the cusp of something darker than the small world she has known her entire life.
She knows that adults aren’t very good at keeping secrets and makes it her mission to uncover as many as she can. When she learns that she once had a baby sister who died – a child unacknowledged by her close but challenging family – Olive becomes convinced it was murder. Her obsession with the mystery and relentless quest to find out what happened have seismic repercussions for the rest of her family and their community. As everything starts to change, it is Olive herself who has the most to lose as the secrets she unearths multiply and take on complicated lives of their own.
Little Gods is a novel about the mess of family, about vengeance and innocence lost. It explores resilience and girlhood and questions how families live with all of their complexities and contradictions. Resonating with echoes of great Australian novels like Seven Little Australians, Cloudstreet, and Jasper Jones, Little Gods is told with similar idiosyncrasy, insight and style. Funny and heartbreaking, this is a rare and original novel about a remarkable girl who learns the hard way that the truth doesn’t always set you free.
Olive Lovelock’s family has been touched by tragedy – tragedies that nobody in the family wants to talk about, to Olive or to each other. They are secrets that are closely guarded by those that hold them, though Olive longs to uncover them, much like the child detectives she reads about. Her mother is the middle of three sisters – Thistle, Audra and Rue. Audra and Rue married brothers William and Bruce, and the lives of these sisters, brothers and their children weave in and out of Olive’s narrative as she goes through her final year of primary school, and the summer before she becomes a teenager. Closer to her aunts than her mother, as she participates in plays with her cousins that Thistle encourages them to put on, Olive uncovers family secrets about a dead sister, and things that Thistle went through as a young woman by listening, and from a bully at school – one of the Sands brothers, a secret child her family refuses to acknowledge.
Upon hearing about this sister, Aster, Olive becomes obsessed with finding out what happened, and goes to Aunt Thistle, whose openness with Olive is a stark contrast to that of her mother Audra, or other aunt, Rue, and hints at a sadness in Thistle, a secret that she has been dealing with for many years, and something in her past that she has never recovered from. Jenny Ackland deals with the complexities of familial relationships, and mental illness – where the unsaid amongst the many has a more profound affect upon the few who yearn to talk about it.
Olive is on the cusp of childhood and becoming a teenager – a place where she feels she doesn’t quite fit in with anyone, and where the misery and tragedy her family has experienced seems to permeate everything they do and how they deal with it – and Jenny Ackland has dealt with this in a sensitive manner, and yet, I felt Olive’s frustration at her parents and family members who wouldn’t talk about Aster, who wouldn’t answer questions and acted as though certain things weren’t appropriate to discuss at all, or appropriate for Olive herself to be talking about, such as when Olive was helping her uncle Cleg with records. Yet, it is Olive’s spirit that encourages her to pursue the truth and find answers to the mystery of her sister. She wants to help her family heal and answer the questions that play on her mind all the time.
It is a uniquely Australian story, set in Mallee and Victoria, in the country, and with mentions of Vegemite, and hints at events of the early 1980s that have become embedded in the Australian psyche. It is very character driven, and seeing the world through Olive’s eyes illustrates how different people in the same family can see the world and their lives in vastly different ways.