They go to work and they don’t come back. Everywhere there are cracks in the world that other people can’t see.
The story takes place in Perth, Australia 1968 and one day Orla’s father Dan, a shining sun in her world, doesn’t come home. With his death, everything changes for Orla, her little sister Deebee and their mother Henrietta. The world becomes a threatening place without the protection of a father, there is nothing left to save them, financial hardship is that much heavier a weight, and as their father’s thoughts fade, the last are those of shame as the reader is privy to his regrets, that he left his wife nothing, that he is so sorry… The novel flows between memories and the aftermath of the shift in their family structure. Before, there are problems, they aren’t able to stay in their house in the hills, the money isn’t coming in. Her parents must leave the hills for a cheaper living situation, they move to the ‘only-for-a-year-house’, but another house will be built. No longer surrounded by the vast wilderness, closer to the beach but in a more suburban setting they are closer to neighbors. People that are better left unknown, those you avoid. Their mother works weekends to help them stay afloat, until the death of their father makes the neighbors people to rely upon, when there is no one else. There are to be no more riding lessons for Orla, who has a head full of horses, which the family couldn’t really afford while her daddy was alive, but how could he deny his girl such a desperate desire? Left with their mother, who has always been far less patient with the children, missing the father who ‘never shouted’ they are all vulnerable to the threats ‘out there’ in the big bad world. There is never true closure for Orla and Deebee, without the finality of a funeral (as the girls weren’t allowed to go) Orla is sure her daddy will return, like a moth to a light, despite the visit from the reverend assuring her ‘God only takes the best first.’
Orla isn’t quite a teenager yet, still a little girl awakening to grown up things, and of course far less sheltered after she loses her father. The author did a wonderful job of getting into a young girls mind, everything is murky when you’re young. It’s like trying to understand words while swimming underwater. Nothing is fully explained, nor fully grasped when you are not quite developed in body and mind. But you sure grow up fast when your home is no longer made up of capable, loving parents. Henrietta, due to this tragic unexpected circumstance is now both mother and father, frustrated by Orla whom she doesn’t understand, a little girl she has always felt lacked ‘guts’, something all Australians need, but she will have to learn, she will have to learn to be harder in this place. What is she going to do, left with no one but the children, and how is she, a widow alone in the 1960’s, to keep them fed, housed, clothed? Then there is a prowler lurking about, and women just aren’t taken seriously, they need a husband for everything, how is she to secure a better home for her girls when women need men to be approved for such things? A woman alone with little girls is a target! The odds are always stacked against her. Dan left them nothing! He didn’t prepare for such things and she is paying for it all, she and her girls. Another betrayal she has to stomach, and there were other betrayals. She hates the thought of it all, trapped, a mountain on her shoulders. Would it have been better if she died? After all, people rally behind men who lose wives, forgive them anything, not so for a widow! It’s probably her fault he is dead! These thoughts are absolutely genuine of the times, it was the same with single mothers even when I grew up in America during the late seventies and early eighties, there was a ‘they probably deserve it’ mentality. There wasn’t empathy for single mom’s whether due to the loss of a husband or divorce. Being in Henrietta’s shoes would be terrifying and there are pages dedicated to her head space, though Orla dominates the novel.
With their father gone, a young mother named Cora comes into their lives too, not as coarse as they once believed but talking about adult things Orla doesn’t always comprehend, with so much life in her, confidence, a fun person. Her mother has different views on ‘unfortunate’ Cora, jealous too of the amount of time her eldest daughter chooses to spend at her house but Orla thinks she is lucky, with both her mother and father still alive. Little sister, wild Deebee feels caged when she has to stay with the Thompsons while her mother is at work, absolutely hates it. I adored Deebee, she is feral, she isn’t a ‘good girl’ but that doesn’t make her bad. She is a fierce little thing, even less aware of what goes on around them all.
Through the novel there is a threat simmering, but threats always simmer for women living on their own. The ending really hit me between the eyes. The novel may lose some readers because often people get lost in internal dialogue, particularly when it’s the worries of an often anxious young girl. I think it actually works for Orla’s character, because with the difficulties and grief she feels, the longing, the fear of the future, her mind wouldn’t ever be at rest, her thoughts wouldn’t be linear. That’s how we are when we’re trying to make sense of our place in the world. A sad novel.
Out Today February 1, 2019