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Posted on 21 Jun 2018 in Fiction |

JENNY ACKLAND Little Gods. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren

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Ackland crafts perfect scenes in Little Gods – a novel about the things that fade away: childhood, memories and ghosts.

Olive Lovelock is 12 years old and fearless. She tells people that the old binoculars she wears around her neck all the time are ‘to see things better’ when really, they make it easier for her to spy on people. On road trips, Olive watches out for injured animals, insisting that her parents stop the car so she can help, despite her mother’s disgust. She’s fascinated by tales of the macabre: women who burst into flames, and the scratches on the coffin lids of plague victims. And she has a pet ‘raven’ called Grace – a rescued crow Olive loves dearly, who brings her tiny gifts she displays on her windowsill.

In a small town somewhere in Victoria’s Mallee region, the school year is ending and summer is beginning. Olive is at the local pool with Peter, her best friend, when a confrontation with class bully, Luke Sands, turns into something uglier:

He took a step closer, grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard. Her teeth clacked and she expected to be let go and fall backwards into the pool but he stopped and she was still upright. She looked at his face. He had a small scab near his bottom lip. He let go.

‘I know about you’ Luke Sands said. ‘And your cousin, the dwarf with a tail.’

‘It’s not true,’ she said.

‘What’s not true? What about your sister then?’

He was smiling at her. One of his teeth looked grey and it was very small. ‘Yeah, we’re not supposed to talk about it but everyone knows.’

Without hesitation, Olive pushes Luke straight into the pool. However, there’s something about his words that Olive can’t shake: she’s used to the rumours about her family, but Olive doesn’t have a sister.

Peter knows nothing about Olive’s sister. She can tell by the way he urgently needs to tie up his shoelaces or talk about something else whenever she asks him. Her mother, Audra, is beautiful, quiet and permanently on edge. If Olive’s to find out whether there’s any truth to what Luke said, it’s going to be through her aunts.

Most weekends, Olive and her parents drive out to Serpentine, the family farm, where she’s free to climb trees, play with her cousins and annoy Rue and Thistle, her aunts. Rue is nurturing and caring in a way Olive’s mother isn’t, while Thistle is unmarried and has a jumbled room full of treasures, like her collectible bird cards, a real sheep’s skull and boxes of tablets. Sometimes Thistle is sad and won’t talk to anyone, but when she’s in a good mood, she’ll answer some of Olive’s questions about aliens and zombies and God.

It’s Thistle who hesitantly reveals a little piece of the truth: Olive did have a sister. Her name was Aster, and she died when Olive was very young.

Desperate to know more, Olive pleads with the women around her for more information. Their exasperated silence leads Olive to the conclusion that her sister must have been murdered. Olive decides it’s up to her to find out what really happened to Aster – and take revenge.

Jenny Ackland’s first novel, The Secret Son, was a tale of men and war and Australia that sprawled across generations and continents. In contrast, Little Gods takes place on a smaller scale. But don’t let this quiet novel catch you unprepared: Little Gods might just crush your heart.

On the subject of hearts, Olive Lovelock grabbed hold of mine almost immediately. For all her endearing quirkiness, the adults around Olive find her exasperating. Her teacher rubs her temples whenever Olive speaks and thinks her name is ‘Olivia’. Olive can be bossy and single-minded, but she’s far more vulnerable than she realises. In other words, I couldn’t love her more.

Though she’s clearly smart, Olive is still a child, and there’s a lot that she doesn’t understand about other people. Ackland uses the gap between Olive’s understanding of the adults around her and how readers will interpret them as a source not only of tension, but of humour too.

Olive either doesn’t know that she’s right on the edge of puberty or she doesn’t acknowledge it, and it’s our adult knowledge of what Olive’s future holds that casts a wistful shadow over the novel. Just as soon as we’ve fallen in love with Olive and her unique world, Ackland begins to slowly take it to pieces in front of us. It’s not articulated until towards the novel’s end, but there’s a lingering sense that, for Olive, growing up will mean losing some of what makes her unique. The adult world doesn’t value brave, confident, curious women like Olive – especially not in the 1980s, when the novel is set.

Little Gods’ key characters are almost entirely women and girls. There are boys, like Peter, and Olive’s cousins, Sebastian and Archie. But men, like Olive’s dad and her uncles, inhabit the story’s peripheral spaces, their presence barely registering. Though Ackland moves women to the front in Little Gods, her female characters are rarely helpful. Sisters Audra, Rue and Thistle are often at odds, and although they’re the only people Olive considers asking for help, they ultimately let her down.

In addition to creating a truly remarkable character, Ackland has a genuine talent for crafting perfect scenes. Little Gods is full of so many that choosing a favourite is next to impossible. There’s the sequence where Olive forces her terrified cousins to accompany her to the creepiest place in town to use a ouija board. Or the scene in which Olive and Peter ride their bikes out to the silos on the edge of town. There’s also this perfect paragraph-long gem that’s just dropped almost at random into the middle of a chapter:

She had seen a ghost. Once, on a winter night, a little girl had sat on the end of her bed. Olive had lifted her head to look and in the moonlight could see the girl’s eyes were open. From behind the walls came the sound of an organ, like in church. Deep and spooky. Olive had lowered her head to the pillow and gone back to sleep. During the night though she lifted her head once more and the girl was still there. In the faint morning light, she watched as the ghost disappeared as fingers of cold sun stretched into the room.

Little Gods is about the things that fade away – childhood, memories and ghosts. It’s also about the mistakes we make, and how they cause cracks that can become faultlines when left unchecked. Ackland’s title comes from the Biblical teaching that people, like gods, have the power to decide who’s guilty and who’s innocent. But as Olive finds out, we mere mortals don’t always get things right.

Jenny Ackland Little Gods Allen & Unwin 2018 PB 320pp $29.99

Michelle McLaren lives in Melbourne and is a fiction co-editor for Verity La. She blogs about books, time travel and nice, hot cups of tea at Book to the Future (www.booktothefuture.com.au).

You can buy Little Gods from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.