Melbourne-based writer Jenny Ackland’s debut novel The Secret Son (2015), a meditation on Gallipoli, was all about men. Her second book, Little Gods, is all about girls. In particular, girls growing up.
The novel follows heroine Olive Lovelock, a spirited 12-year-old who is both quick-witted and physically brave. Olive races around on her bicycle, stands up to the boy bullies in her suburban town, and, at one point, takes a car for a spin. Proud and defiant, her pet is not a puppy but a jet-black raven called Grace who seems to reflect her own qualities: ravens, as she is told, are “loyal, smart and excellent problem solvers”.
An only child, Olive wiles away her days followed around by her adoring friend Peter (dubbed the “Lovelorn Lieutenant”) and playing with her cousins at her aunt and uncle’s farm in the hot scrublands of the Mallee in north-western Victoria. There, she puts out bait for lizards, swims in the dam and hides in the cobwebs under the house, striving to hear the adults’ conversations as they chew the fat on the verandah.
Olive has a fascination for the macabre, fuelled by her unmarried aunt Thistle, who, although plagued by bouts of depression that Olive barely understands, is both fun and intellectually curious. While the adult men in Olive’s life – namely her father and uncle, brothers who are married to sisters, her aunt and mother – are stoic and quiet, it is the women who rule the roost, dictating the rhythm of family life.
When Olive discovers that she once had a little sister, who died purportedly from drowning, she becomes determined to find out what really happened from the grown-ups, who are unable, or unwilling, to discuss the past. Convinced a murder has been covered up, she takes it upon herself to become an amateur spy, binoculars around her neck. In a coming-of-age story, it is only when it is too late that she discovers the truth has its cost.
Lyrically written, Little Gods succeeds most in conjuring up the magic of childhood and the cadences of a large raucous family. Ackland creates a novel that is Australian to its core and both nostalgic and razor-sharp. Few scenes sum up this emotional complexity better than the annual summer play put on by the children with Thistle directing: it is at once pitiful in what it reveals and farcical; laugh-out-loud funny and desperately sad. Like Little Gods itself. EA
Allen & Unwin, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Jenny Ackland, Little Gods ". Subscribe here.