About the Book:
As a child, trapped in the savage act of growing up, Olive had sensed she was at the middle of something, so close to the nucleus she could almost touch it with her tongue. But like looking at her own nose for too long, everything became blurry and she had to pull away. She’d reached for happiness as a child not yet knowing that the memories she was concocting would become deceptive. That memories get you where they want you not the other way around.
The setting is the Mallee, wide flat scrubland in north-western Victoria, country where men are bred quiet, women stoic and the gothic is never far away. Olive Lovelock has just turned twelve. She is smart, fanciful and brave and on the cusp of something darker than the small world she has known her entire life.
She knows that adults aren’t very good at keeping secrets and makes it her mission to uncover as many as she can. When she learns that she once had a baby sister who died – a child unacknowledged by her close but challenging family – Olive becomes convinced it was murder. Her obsession with the mystery and relentless quest to find out what happened have seismic repercussions for the rest of her family and their community. As everything starts to change, it is Olive herself who has the most to lose as the secrets she unearths multiply and take on complicated lives of their own.
Little Gods is a novel about the mess of family, about vengeance and innocence lost. It explores resilience and girlhood and questions how families live with all of their complexities and contradictions. Resonating with echoes of great Australian novels like Seven Little Australians, Cloudstreet, and Jasper Jones, Little Gods is told with similar idiosyncrasy, insight and style. Funny and heartbreaking, this is a rare and original novel about a remarkable girl who learns the hard way that the truth doesn’t always set you free.
There is definitely shades of ‘the great Australian novel’ within this latest offering by Jenny Ackland, and while I’m usually reluctant to draw comparisons between stories, I felt a certain Stand By Me vibe about Little Gods, that whole ‘the summer before everything changed’ sort of feeling. I really think this is a story that will play out well on the big screen, it has all the qualities essential for a timeless Aussie movie. Fingers crossed for Jenny!
In Olive, Jenny has created one tough little cookie. Smart, fearless, and highly imaginative, Olive is the sort of girl who makes other girls nervous, and consequently, she spends all of her time with boys, and even they have to rein her in sometimes. It was nice to at last get an Australian coming of age story with a girl front and centre; any others that spring to mind have all been about boys. But Olive’s boldness proves to be her undoing and I keenly felt that Jenny applied an expert hand to Olive in the way only a woman could.
Little Gods is very much a character driven story. It meanders along with Olive as the main narrator – in fact, there are only a few instances where this changes within pivotal scenes – and much of the story is concerned with the daily comings and goings of a twelve year old girl. There were times when this proved to be incredibly insightful, particularly when you were able to read between the lines of Olive’s observations and also whenever she was eavesdropping on the adults or in conversation with her aunt Thistle or uncle Cleg, two adults who had no sense of child-sensoring – for different reasons though. But there were other times when I tired of Olive. It’s a reasonably long novel and some of the time, not very much seemed to be happening. Child perspectives within novels for adults can be tricky to maintain, particularly within a story that is not especially plot driven, and consequently, my attention wandered quite often while reading Little Gods.
While we see the story through Olive’s eyes, everything revolves around her family. The Lovelock family reminded me a little of my own, all involved with each other, cousins growing up side by side, secrets swept under the doormat and mental illness managed in-house; your typical Australian family from the 1980s. The nostalgia is rich throughout Little Gods and that carried me through. Who doesn’t like to look back on the ‘good old days’, although we usually have selective memory when it comes to looking back, because I can tell you now, those old days weren’t all good all the time, far from it. But when I tell my children about my own childhood, it’s the good days that rise to the fore, and I really feel that Jenny tapped into this tendency, that selective memory we as adults tend to practice when it comes to talking about our childhoods, especially when we’re trying to get our children up off the couch and out into the fresh air.
Life was different back then though, there was a freedom to my childhood that is absent from my own children’s. I was a farm kid too, so my days were spent away from the house getting into all sorts of things I probably shouldn’t have with no adults aware of my whereabouts ever. Much like Olive. The secret Olive unearths was a preventable accident born out of a lack of supervision on the part of the adults in Olive’s life. Yet this was common. I had friends with missing fingers and toes from preventable accidents and yes, missing siblings too, who had been run over or drowned. This was not unusual. Now, we watch our children constantly and rush them to the emergency room for every fall they have. Is this better? I don’t know. What I do know, is that I’m not convinced my children are as self-sufficient as my cousins and I were. Some days I doubt they could cross the street without a near miss!
Little Gods is a slice of life from days gone by and I loved the authenticity of it. It’s about family, the good and the bad, loyalty and protection within, even when we don’t like the people we’re related to. It’s about understanding that the truth can hurt and won’t necessarily set you free.
Thanks is extended to Allen and Unwin for providing me with a copy of Little Gods for review.
About the Author:
Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. She has worked in offices, sold textbooks in a university bookshop, taught English overseas and worked as a proof-reader and freelance editor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and listed in prizes and awards. Her debut novel The Secret Son – a “Ned Kelly-Gallipoli mash-up” about truth and history – was published in 2015. Little Gods is her second novel.