Little Gods by Jenny Ackland

little gods.jpgTitle: Little Gods

Author: Jenny Ackland

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 28th March 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 346

Price: $29.99

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 JonesSeven 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 AustraliansCloudstreet, and Jasper JonesLittle 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.

AWW-2018-badge-roseUpon 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.

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The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland

The Secret Son by Jenny Ackland

9781925266160
* I received a copy of this to review from the publisher*

Title: The Secret Son
Author: Jenny Ackland
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Category: Fiction/Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Available formats: Print and eBook
Publication Date: 26/8/15
RRP: AU$29.99
Book Synopsis: An Australian historian determined to find the truth, a stolen inheritance, a wishing tree, a long-lost grandmother, and an unlikely sweetheart come together in a dazzlingly original, audacious and exhilarating novel about love, honour and belonging, and what it means to be a good person.
I know that two men are coming up the mountain, at this moment, including the boy from far away. I wonder what my grandson’s face will look like. This is a boy in the skin of a man. I know the boy is innocent, that it’s his family soul which is guilty.

An old woman sits waiting in a village that clings to a Turkish mountainside, where the women weave rugs, make tea and keep blood secrets that span generations. Berna can see what others cannot, so her secrets are deeper and darker than most. It is time for her to tell her story, even though the man for whom her words are meant won’t hear them. It is time for the truth to be told.

Nearly a hundred years before, her father James had come to the village on the back of a donkey, gravely ill, rescued from the abandoned trenches of Gallipoli by a Turkish boy whose life he had earlier spared. James made his life there, never returning to Australia and never realising that his own father was indeed the near-mythical bushranger that the gossips had hinted at when he’d been a boy growing up in Beechworth.

Now, as Berna waits, a young man from Melbourne approaches to visit his parents’ village, against the vehement opposition of his cursed, tight-lipped grandfather. What is the astonishing story behind the dark deeds that connect the two men, unknown to each other and living almost a century apart?

The Secret Son is a remarkable debut, a dazzlingly original, audacious and exhilarating novel. At once joyous and haunting, it is a moving meditation on love, honour and belonging, as well as a story about the strength of women and what it means to be a good man.

~*~

The premise of Jenny Ackland’s novel, The Secret Son, suggests that Ned Kelly fathered a son before he was hung for his crimes as a bushranger at Melbourne Gaol. A young boy grows up not knowing his father, yet knowing he was someone mysterious. James finds solace in the bees he keeps with his mother, their farm and a new life after her death in the city, courting the young daughter of a bookstore owner where he works, until war breaks out. James enlists, and is sent to Gallipoli, to take part in the tragic campaign that destroys so many young lives. It is here that he finds a new home after he is abandoned and ill.
Parallel to the story of James is that of Cem, a young boy from Melbourne, of Turkish origin, who is sent back to Turkey and the village James spent the rest of his life in at the behest of his grandfather, Ahmet. It is on this journey he meets historian, Harry, interested in chasing down the story of the supposed secret son of Ned Kelly, a legend that he has heard somewhere and wishes to write about and prove. Cem’s experience at Gallipoli is far less emotional than those he travels with. A young man, he feels lost, trying to straddle the traditions of his family and their expectations, and the modern world.
Ackland weaves in the story of James from Gallipoli onwards into the story of Cem, and brings them together to create a mystery that evolves over the book to keep you reading, to find out how and if Cem is connected to James, and why Ahmet agreed to send his grandson back to the village at the behest of a deal made long ago. Generations of families become connected, and two cultures and nations collide after wartime battles and familial connections.
It was a fascinating read, and the idea, however speculative, that Ned Kelly had a son is an intriguing one and would be interesting historically, knowing the fascination the Kelly Gang has for Australians. Ackland has executed this nicely. The history of Gallipoli, and the war encapsulates the characters of the village and the events that lead to Cem arriving there well, and creates an intriguing story that is very enjoyable.