A stunningly original debut novel inspired by the life of Eugenia Falleni.
Sydney, 1938. After being hit by a car on Oxford Street, sixty-three-year-old Jean Ford lies in a coma in Sydney Hospital. Doctors talk across her body, nurses jab her in the arm with morphine, detectives arrive to take her fingerprints. She has £100 in her pocket, but no identification. Memories come back to her-a murder trial, a life in prison-but with each prick of the needle her memories begin to shift.
Wellington, 1885. Tally Ho doesn’t need to go to school because she is going to be a fisherman or a cart driver or a butcher boy like Harry Crawford. Wellington is her town and she makes up the rules. Papà takes her fishing, Nonno teaches her how to jump fences on his horse Geronimo-life gallops on the way it should, until a brother, baby William, is born. ‘Go and play with your sisters,’ Papà says, but wearing dresses and sipping tea is not the life for Tally Ho. Taking the advice of her hero, Harry Crawford, she runs away.
Sydney, 1917. The burned body of a woman is discovered on the banks of the Lane Cove River. Was she a mad woman? A drunk who’d accidentally set herself on fire? Nobody knows, until-three years later-a tailor’s apprentice tells police that his mother went missing that same weekend, and that his stepfather, Harry Crawford, is not who he seems to be. Who, then, is he?
Half Wild is a rollicking historical adventure presented in an entirely unique way. It’s that perfect blend of historical fact with fiction, immersing you into early 20th century Australia, yet never once making you think you are on the receiving end of a fantastic history lesson. Yet, you are! Pip Smith is a truly gifted story teller, possessed with an ability to sprinkle history anecdotally throughout a story, using facts to enhance, rather than weigh down or inform, she highlights the most incidental and interesting parts of our bygone society, the most cringe-worthy and delicious, the gross as well as the beautiful; I was captivated by Half Wild from the moment I picked it up until the moment I put it down. What a wonderful debut!
I love the inspiration behind this novel, and it’s worth sharing here to give context to my appreciation for Half Wild. Pip Smith attended the 2005 Sydney Justice and Police Museum exhibition, which was titled ‘City of Shadows’.
The exhibition was made up of early 20th century police photographs that had been recovered from a flooded warehouse. The accompanying files were lost, so the photos on display were mostly selected for their provocative compositions, the half-stories they told and the eerie, alter-Sydney they invoked. – Author’s Note, Half Wild, Pip Smith, 2017.
It was here that she viewed a photograph of a man, a mugshot, and found herself drawn in by the melancholy evident in his expression. Pip states:
He seemed to be performing his normality, not his criminality, and only just managing to hold himself together.
The footnote for the photo noted that it was of a ‘Harry Leon Crawford’ who upon being arrested and charged with the murder of his wife, was discovered to be Eugenie Falleni, a woman who had been passing as a male since 1899. And from this, the story of Half Wild was born to Pip Smith. This is what I love most about reading historical fiction, that germination of an idea born out of fact. Utterly fascinating, and it brings parts of history, that many of us would remain ignorant of, right into our hands in the most accessible manner.
Pip writes with a wit that stands out right from the first sentence. It doesn’t really matter which character she is writing, the voice feels right, it’s entertaining, easy to read and slip into, although I will point out that she wrote her main character, Nina, utterly perfect. This is particularly evident when you see the age progression, from 10-year-old child through to aged and dying in a haze of confusion. No small feat, to age a voice so well. When we are with Nina as a child, there are some truly funny lines and scenes, it was most entertaining.
The arrangement of this novel was very interesting. For the most part, it tells the story of Eugenie Falleni fairly chronologically, but only up to a certain point. When it veers from this, it’s through necessity, to enhance the overall picture that was Eugenie’s life, as interpreted and devised by Pip. While we can’t forget that this is fiction born out of fact, there is a fair deal of research and primary sources used throughout the novel to lend it credibility. And anyway, in the end, the facts remain the same; how the end was met is possibly incidental. I liked how Pip set this novel up, using other characters to tell key parts of the story, particularly during the hearing and trial of Eugenie. I also like how Sydney, the town, had its own voice from time to time. That was very inventive. The entire novel had a refreshingly Australian feel to it that was comforting to immerse yourself into.
I admire this novel, and Pip Smith for conceiving it. It’s a remarkable achievement and very well done. It deserves the highest of praise and I wish her every success with it.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Half Wild for review. Half Wild is book 41 in my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.