PIP SMITH Half Wild. Reviewed by Robin Elizabeth
Half Wild is heart-warming, confusing and deeply unsettling all at the same time.
This debut novel by Pip Smith is based on the life of the person variously known as Eugenia Falleni, Harry Crawford and Jean Ford. It is a work of impressive scope, covering three different timeframes – 1885, 1917 and 1938 – and using four different narrative voices: first person, second person, third person, plus media clippings. All this comes together to create a surreal impression of the main character: a person who struggled with being forced into set behaviours based on the genitals at birth.
The first 103 pages are a ripping, fast-paced read that outlines the details of Harry Crawford’s early life. I use this name because in the novel it is the name that the protagonist seems to have embraced. Told in first person, enabling the reader to dive straight into Harry’s skin, it tells the story of how Harry was born in Italy with female genitalia and named Eugenia Falleni. The family soon moved to New Zealand, where Crawford grew up and struggled with the role assigned by the family: to wear dresses, behave at school, perform domestic duties and marry. This was not the life that Crawford dreamed of. The language is viscerally active:
Behind the gate was a garden, if you could call it that. It consisted of plants growing in the shape of cubes. Women in uniforms walked past the cube plants with young girls who looked like they’d had their brains extracted. A nervous sound came from their mouths, and even the house at the end of the path made a shrill noise, as if its walls were lined with cicadas. In a distant room someone was practising a tuba. The notes drew a square in the sky, bom, bom, bom, bom, over and over until a piece of the sky nearly fell out and shattered at my feet.
Having suffered enough at the hands of societal and familial expectations, which included beatings, isolation, confinement, rape and forced marriage, Crawford flees New Zealand. The story departs from first person narrative at this point and diverges into the second for the duration of the time spent on the ship that Crawford works on in order to leave that life behind. It only lasts four pages but is a powerful segue into life in Australia. Through moving from the personal ‘I’ to the distancing ‘you’ it can be understood that the events on the ship were so traumatic that Crawford has had to dissociate from them. The horrors are hinted at:
The captain does nice things for you. When dolphins swim alongside the ship, he tells you stories about them. That the males have corkscrew penises and rape females in a gang. He knows all sorts of facts about the animals you can see, the animals you can’t. Even the animal you are.
The violent nature of the corkscrew – sharp, piercing, penetrative – adds to the brutality. And the subtle link to all animals in the last sentence says so much, without having to specifically state anything. Crawford ends up in Australia pregnant, after a further dissociative second-person passage with more nods to animal brutality but also human violence. The horror in some ways is worse because it cannot be relived directly. Rape does get described in the first person earlier in the novel. This is clearly worse, and moves Crawford from coherent first person to a break from the self.
The remainder of the novel is a decoupage of brief explosions of third-person narrative from a variety of characters’ perspectives and from newspaper clippings. These include coverage of the death of Harry Crawford’s first wife, Annie Birkett, and the subsequent murder trial. It was this trial that shot Crawford to international notice, because on being arrested for the murder of Birkett, Crawford asked to be put in a women’s prison. This distancing technique means that the question of who killed Annie Birkett is never definitively answered in the book. There is material that lends itself to both guilty and innocent verdicts. I’m not going to make that choice for you, individual readers must decide for themselves. But given that the act Crawford is most famous for is not graphically detailed and the first 100 pages of Half Wild is without a doubt an engrossing read, the question must be asked: why change tack when the book is working and leave the act of murder up to interpretation?
I believe the answer lies in the way Smith has bonded the reader with the main character throughout the first quarter of the novel, then throws a spanner in the works with the change of narrative voice. This pitches the reader into confusion and chaos, not just mimicking the feelings of the main character, but giving a sense of those voyeuristically following the murder trial: the public and the prosecution, who are piecing together details of a life that they feel is scandalous and beyond understanding. Through ripping the narrative out of the long-form first-person, Smith allows the reader to go from identifying with Crawford to being put in the skin of those who were persecuting, both legally and socially. It is a deeply unsettling feeling and, I believe, the point of the novel: not just to show sympathy, but also to show how awful we can be ourselves.
Half Wild is a bravely written debut and must be commended for its ambitious scope: heart-warming, confusing and deeply unsettling all at the same time. Certainly it is a novel that will leave you thinking long after you put it down.
Pip Smith Half Wild Allen & Unwin 2017 PB 390pp $29.99
Robin Elizabeth is the author of Confessions of a Mad Mooer: Postnatal Depression Sucks and blogs at Write or Wrong about her love of Australian literature, depression, and whatever tickles her fancy bone.
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