“Fictionalised biographies – novels based on the life of a famous person – are ten-a-penny,” wrote the novelist Jonathan Gibbs in 2014. “And why not? ... Other people – the actual biographers – have done the hard work.” Gibbs’s sentiment may be largely true, but it doesn’t apply to Half Wild, Pip Smith’s hugely entertaining debut novel based on the life of Jean Ford.
While there have been other books about Ford, who was certainly notorious back in the 1920s, this story isn’t remembered well enough now to be considered famous, leaving plenty of hard research work for Smith. Also, Half Wild isn’t a straight fictional biography. Smith’s chosen a self-referential style of historical true crime, telling the story using sections in Ford’s first person, and other, shorter pieces showing the effect of Ford’s life and ultimate undoing on close to 30 friends, relatives, neighbours and professionals. There’s also assorted ephemera such as clippings and a court transcript. It’s a chunky, fast-moving approach and the dramatis personae, so often superfluous, is essential.
The plot, though historically accurate – and highly vulnerable to spoilers – seems both stranger than fiction and intensely relevant to modern concerns of identity. In 1938, a woman, 60 or 70 years old, has been hit by a car in Oxford Street and eventually identified in Sydney Hospital as a Jean Ford. Ford is comatose but aware and doped up on morphine, and disjointed and unreliable memories come flooding back.
“What was it – almost twenty years ago now? – I was sent to die under a different name. I travelled to Long Bay Penitentiary like a celebrity, on a tram with tinted windows,” Ford recalls. It’s a hell of a hook. The crime – the murder of a woman found burnt to death on Lane Cove River in 1917 – has been solved, but was Ford really guilty? And if so, what circumstances could have led to such a horrific act?
The real Ford’s life bridged a number of identities and in Smith’s version, some of them seem difficult to reconcile. In a different novel this kind of inconsistency might be considered a flaw, but here it is deliberate and an element of Half Wild’s success. Ford’s childhood narration is indeed half-wild; it’s an exuberant voice full of bravado and energy. Ford was known then as Nina: the names Jean and Nina, together with some other aliases, could be related to Ford’s birth name, Eugenia Falleni. Nina is the eldest child of Italian-born parents in Wellington, New Zealand, in the late 1800s. It’s a hard life. At home, Mrs Falleni is constantly pregnant, leaving Nina responsible for her younger siblings and for the housework. School is detestable for this rebellious student who never learns to read or write, and instead longs to be a coachman and to never do housework again. At one point, a coach driver pinches young Nina, then a laundry maid, on the bum. Nina kicks him in the shins, takes down her skirt, removes her sodden menstrual rag and throws it at him. After this, things get worse, leading to rape by and then reluctant marriage to a much-older bigamist. After a narrow escape from the Salvation Army and a hellish journey by ship through wild seas, Ford arrives in Sydney.
By the time Smith’s protagonist has moved to Australia, a very different character is apparent, though the seeds of this transformation are planted after the earlier rape. “When your body is broken into,” Ford explains, “your spirit lifts up out of scar tissue like mist, evacuates all cricks and aches, and condenses in a distant room until whatever pain your body feels has passed.” This reborn Ford is romantic and wistful, and has worked in a rubber factory and cleaning down the floors at the slaughterhouse on Glebe Island where “I watched enough times to know how to kill in fourteen minutes flat”. Each of Ford’s incarnations, in fact, is different enough to actually be other people.
Unlike Sarah Schmidt, whose recent novel See What I Have Done also reimagined a historical crime, Smith isn’t interested in providing a definitive answer to Ford’s guilt or innocence, or even whether the victim was murdered at all, or whether the badly burnt body was correctly identified by the police. Instead, Smith portrays the facets of the person who was Jean Ford. That’s why there are so many characters in this novel: because they each provide a different view of Ford. It’s why each of Ford’s personas lies about big things and small, because nothing about Ford’s life is reliable. It’s also why Smith uses their separate names and treats them as distinct individuals. Smith’s subjectivism extends even to her supporting documents, which are maddeningly inconclusive. The section that covers the trial has 51 footnotes from sources such as The Sydney Morning Herald and The Daily Telegraph and, through typeface changes, seems to make a claim for historical accuracy, though an earlier newspaper clipping is patently false.
On the ship travelling to Sydney, the young Ford thinks that the storm will sink them all. Waves are crashing and spume is flying in all directions. “You think it’s horizontal, but you have no idea what horizontal is anymore. Horizontal could be any number of directions that don’t point straight down to the bottom of the sea. But right now, horizontal could include that direction too.” It’s a handy metaphor for a life spent continually buffeted by expectations and limitations from all directions. Smith gives us lots of historical context about the dreary life that young Italian women suffered back then, and plenty of possible motives, but she doesn’t pathologise Ford or the decisions made. That’s left to others: one of Smith’s included articles purports to be recollections of a surgeon, one Herbert M. Moran. He writes, of Ford: “She was condemned even from her birth and her abnormality derived from the very nature of her being.” Half Wild is an intelligent, absorbing novel that’s been crafted with care and layered with meaning. We can only hope the cruel world it reflects is fading quickly. LS
Allen & Unwin, 400pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 17, 2017 as "Pip Smith, Half Wild". Subscribe here.