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Posted on 12 Apr 2018 in Fiction |

KIM KELLY Lady Bird and the Fox. Reviewed by Jessica Stewart

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An Australian Pride and Prejudice? This love story spans race and class in colonial Australia.

In Kim Kelly’s new novel, her seventh, a simple scaffold of romantic historical fiction allows for a more sophisticated commentary on race, privilege and the place of women.

Lady Bird is Annie, and Kelly illustrates the wafer-thin hold that any woman in colonial New South Wales, let alone a woman born of an Aboriginal mother, had over her independence. When Annie’s father dies at work, managing a farm in Castlereagh in the foothills of the Blue Mountains, there is no compensation, no time to find somewhere else to live, and no recognition of Annie’s work in managing the farm books. She and her sister are evicted that day:

‘Why don’t you tell the truth, Mrs Webb. You’re kicking us off because, without our father here, we’re just a couple of unwanted blacks.’ She’s never wanted us here, we know it, two little black marks in her white parish, though she would never say it to our faces while our father’s labour and skill poured prizes and money into her husband’s bank and into her purse.

With only her father’s final wages – the funeral expenses deducted – and no home, Annie rejects the two options on offer: to take up with a man, like her sister, or enter service as a maid. Instead, she draws on her father’s boots, his moleskin strides and a flannel, packs a swag with a few precious mementos and leaves to find her mother’s family.

In Annie’s search for who she is and her awakening to the structural racism that forbids her possession of land, money, even her name, Kelly gently reminds readers of some of colonisation’s consequences for Australia’s First People.

Jem, by contrast, is a rich playboy, indulged by a loving father who gets him out of scrapes and pays his debts, but his misdemeanours have now necessitated a withdrawal to country life. Jem’s search for meaning in his life, and his own sense of abandonment, provide a connection with Annie. And as a Jew, his reception in society has some parallels: ‘No-one ever gets used to being hated.’

In alternating first-person narration, their two voices recount the search for Annie’s grandfather – and pursuit of a gang of bushrangers – on a magnificent horse ‘borrowed’ from Cobb and Co. In her Author’s Note, Kelly acknowledges that she has stepped into the debate about cultural appropriation in taking the voice of an Indigenous woman. But she tells this story with intelligence and respect, drawing on the lives of her ‘oldest friends’ from her own childhood growing up in La Perouse.

Through Jem and Annie, Kelly shows how the law preserves entitlement. Jem already understands that the thin line separating lawful and unlawful behaviour is open to interpretation. Things can be ‘managed’. In contrast, Annie wants, above all, to keep on its right side. In her keen disapproval of Jem’s cut corners and questionable morality, she understands that people like her don’t get second chances.

Kelly’s observations make Lady Bird and The Fox a pleasure to read; for instance that contented state that comes from simply being in the presence of the beloved:

She is busy once more, snatching the plate from me, rinsing it in the stream, before hoisting her ‘tarp’, her little open-ended tent, between the two nearby trees, all in one seemingly fluid action, muttering as she presses iron pins into the ground at each corner: ‘Terrible thin soil again.’ I could watch her busyness forever.

Annie’s character, and sometimes thin-lipped disapproval, evokes Elizabeth Bennet. As Jem says to his disapproving father:

‘She told me the truth about my arrogance. She’s a good person. She’s perfect for me …strong and capable and funny and lovely and fascinating and absolutely herself.’

In fact, were it not taken already, Pride and Prejudice would have been a perfect title.

Kim Kelly Lady Bird and the Fox Jazz Monkey Publications 2018 PB 380pp $27.99

Jessica Stewart is a freelance writer and editor. You can find her at where she writes about language and books she’s loved. As part of her research for a Masters thesis in Editing & Publishing, she has approached Kim Kelly to talk about her experience in publishing

You can buy Lady Bird and the Fox from Booktopia here.

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