Wild Chicory is a novella that takes the reader on an immigrant journey from Ireland to Australia in the early 1900s, along threads of love, family, war and peace. It’s a slice of ordinary life rich in history, folklore and fairy tale, and a portrait of the precious relationship between a granddaughter, Brigid, and her grandmother, Nell.
From the windswept, emerald coast of County Kerry, to the slums of Sydney’s Surry Hills; and from the bitter sectarian violence of Ulster, to tranquillity of rural New South Wales, Brigid weaves her grandmother’s tales into a small but beautiful epic of romance and tragedy, of laughter and the cold reality of loss. It’s Nell’s tales, tall and true, that spur Brigid to write her own, too.
Ultimately, it’s a story of finding your feet in a new land – be that a new country, or a new emotional space – and the wonderful trove of narrative we carry with us wherever we might go.
In many ways Brigid and Nell are Kim and her grandmother Lillian Kelly, and many snippets of story in this work belong especially to them. It is primarily a work of fiction, but while the Kennedys and the O’Halligans in Wild Chicory are not the Kellys and O’Reillys of Kim’s own family history, they have sprung direct from her heart, and show readers just how it is she came to be a writer of stories herself.
Kim Kelly’s Wild Chicory is a fine example of how a single sentence can convey so much. It’s a little novel, only 100 pages, but I learnt so much within these 100 pages. If Kim ever decides to run a masterclass on writing, I’ll be there, with bells on. She is entirely untouchable when it comes to this skill. There are no wasted words, each one is weighted to perfection, her sentences a brilliant combination of exactly what needed to be said with the minimum of blather and the maximum of impact. It’s a skill I appreciate and covet immensely.
In the beginning of Wild Chicory, we are introduced to Brigid and her grandmother, Nell. It’s Sydney in 1976, and they are both reeling from the sudden death of Brigid’s grandfather, Stevie. In the quiet of Nell’s kitchen, over the course of an afternoon, we get a kaleidoscopic glance at the family history of Nell and Stevie, as far back as 1690 in Ireland through to post WWII in Australia. It’s a social history as much as a history of events, a tapestry of an immigrant family that can easily be applied to the experiences of so many Australians.
What I loved most about this novella, was the strength in which it demonstrated the significant effect our stories have on us and who we become; who our children become, and so on throughout the generations. Our stories are embedded within our psyche, we may not be even fully aware of them, but they shape us and sustain us, sometimes for our own good but also sometimes, not so much. I loved the connections across generations Kim displayed within Wild Chicory. It had me thinking quite deeply about my own family history and ‘our’ stories in a way I haven’t done in quite some time. It also reinforced to me the importance of sharing those stories with my own children, so they might better understand and appreciate their origins.
The gentle devotion between Brigid and her grandmother, Nell, was lovely. I had a particularly close relationship to both of my grandmother’s as a child so this was a literary relationship I could appreciate on a personal level.
I don’t often talk about covers in my reviews, mainly because they often change with different editions or are released with multiple covers from the outset. However, Wild Chicory seems to have just the one cover, and I feel compelled to go on a little bit about how beautiful it is. The image is stunning, the type of image I would happily hang on my wall as a large canvas print. It conjurs up an image of Australia from bygone days, a childhood of freedom and exploring, big blue skies and wide open fields; so much like the early years of my own childhood. Perhaps that’s why I loved this novella so much. It touched me on a personal level, but in a gentle way, tapping into the good memories, which can often fall by the wayside in preference to the bad ones. The cover is a perfect match for the story and I sincerely hope it never gets a makeover. It’s so rare to find a cover that sums up it’s story so well.
Wild Chicory is a celebration of triumph over adversity, a social history of early 20th century Australia, who we are as a nation as much as who we are as individuals. I highly recommend it to every reader, both young and old. There’s something in it for everyone.
Wild Chicory is book 24 of my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.
To learn more about Kim Kelly and her novels, head over to her website: Kim Kelly Australian Author.