It’s 1976, and in the small town of Repentance, on the edge of the Great Dividing Range in New South Wales, the new hippies and the old families are about to collide over the issue of logging old-growth forests. Repentance, Alison Gibbs’s debut novel, takes as its focus a few key characters, and the larger drama of the township unravels around the ins and outs of their lives towards a fittingly moving denouement.
Central to the story is 13-year-old Joanne, whose mother is dying, and who works after school in her parents’ store. When she is paired with Melanie for a school assignment, she discovers the world of the hippies, and the novel gently explores the way in which a person’s ideas can veer away from their family’s, despite the same upbringing and circumstances. The cast of characters, linked by blood or work or against their better judgement, are a motley bunch, authentic in their differences and their staunch beliefs.
The plot is evenly weighted and the writing satisfyingly complex, but the tone is relentlessly aggressive. Characters swing around in panic, grip the wheels, hit the brakes. People get cut off, they wrench off tags, hurl things to the ground and fling doors open, and the constancy of this can make for an exhausting reading experience that sits at odds with the beauty of the landscape described.
The novel describes a time of huge social upheaval, but community disagreement is a timeless story. Teenagers Melanie and Joanne experience troubles that are universal yet also specific to them, and the same is true of the grown-ups in the belly of the conflict. Gibbs’s dialogue captures the way each character uses language, giving a strong sense of how it feels to be in their company.
Gibbs leaves many of the strands of these individual stories appropriately open-ended and we are left with the sense that these lives continue beyond the page. Characters justify their actions to themselves and to others, and the treat here is the nuanced manner with which Gibbs shows how people can believe they are doing the right thing when others think their actions are unequivocally wrong. Where humans fit into the ecosystem, and how firmly or lightly we should tread, is a divisive and fascinating topic, and this is a novel that examines these questions with creativity and refreshing open-mindedness.
Scribe, 304pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jan 30, 2021 as "Alison Gibbs, Repentance".
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