Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 18, 2011

Gone, by Jennifer Mills

GoneGone, by Jennifer Mills, is a remarkably good book. I couldn’t put it down, and now I’m sorry I’ve come to the end of it.

A man, nameless, is on the road after his release from an institution.  At first it’s not clear whether it was a mental institution or a prison because he is disoriented and confused. He’s been released into the void with a voucher for a government support agency that – by the time he gets his act together to use it – is past its use-by date.   He’s directed to a charity that gives him a rudimentary meal, some clothes, a sleeping bag and a backpack.  There he abandons his former identity along with his clothes, and begins to use the name Frank because that’s the name on the backpack.  He then sets off to hitchhike to the West – for reasons that are not made clear to the reader until the very end of the novel.

The journey of over 4000 miles across Australia is both psychological and literal. With no money and none of the detritus that the rest of us acquire without much thought, he’s vulnerable.   He’s not keen to sleep in places where he might be under surveillance; he’s unwilling to talk because he doesn’t want his history and identity known.   Utterly dependant on the kindness of strangers (which he abuses in various ways) he is hungry and thirsty and at the mercy of the elements.  Mills skilfully shreds small harrowing shards of memory into the text to build the back story.

A sense of unease permeates the novel.  The Murray River is dying, Woomera fit only for a detention centre to deter refugees, and the heat and dust is relentless.  But it’s not just the forbidding landscape and the risk of being stranded in the middle of a malevolent desert.  As he hitches through the outback he’s reminded time and again of the backpacker murders and the disappearance of Peter Falconio. In South Australia there’s an allusion to what must be the Snowtown murders and there is a child made mute by the death of his parents.

Yet this dirty, smelly, uncommunicative man is treated most often with kindness by the assortment of strange characters who people Mills’ Outback.  People buy him meals, give him a bed for the night, and offer him human company.  They mostly seem to be aware – as perhaps he is not himself – that desperation is what drives him to take the risk of hitchhiking.  One man cautiously prefaces his small gift of dinner money with anxiety that he might offend Frank; a woman gives him a whole packet of cigarettes.  He’s not grateful to any of these people taking the risk that he might rob them or worse; and he doesn’t hesitate to take what he needs – a shirt, a pair of boots.  But Mills doesn’t judge him, and neither will the astute reader.  The man is in extremis; he’s beyond making simple judgements about right and wrong.

There’s no neat and tidy ending to Frank’s journey, but there is a kind of redemption.

Carody Culver has written a very good review at The Blurb.  Jennifer Mills blogs at JenJen.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Jennifer Mills
Title: Gone (Click the link to purchase from Fishpond, or here from UQP)
Publisher: UQP, 2011
ISBN: 9780702238710
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP and the author.


Responses

  1. This sounds really, really interesting. A book with a nice mix of light and dark maybe? After reading your thoughts I have been off to see if it is published in the UK, alas, not yet. I have made a note of the author and title though as it sounds just the sort of thing I would like. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

    • I’ll be featuring Jennifer Mills in my Meet an Aussie Author series soon!

  2. Hi Lisa

    Very enticing review and adding this one to my wishlist.

    • Hi Jenny, maybe I’ll be able to help make a wish come true…watch your inbox!

  3. It sounds like a great idea for a story. As someone prone to random (tiny) acts of kindness I think I’d enjoy that one. I can’t imagine how anyone would survive that journey in the heat and dryness – that alone makes the book interesting quite apart from the human aspects

    • It’s an astonishing story. About 20 years ago I travelled across the Nullabor by road and it really impressed upon me just how vast this country is. I get a renewed sense of that each time I fly over the Red Centre when I travel back from overseas. The idea of taking luck in your hands and hitching across it is breathtaking, and I haven’t really addressed in my review the issue of the latent courage of Jennifer Mills’ character. I think this is one that should be on the longlist for next year’s Miles Franklin award…

  4. I loved this book. Learned about it by accident as a doctor who treated me is the author’s uncle! Very perceptive and sensitive in relating the experience of coming out of prison with no support network. The main character is the sort of person that mainstream Australia would prefer to pretend doesn’t exist.

    • Hello Michelle, welcome to chatting about books at ANZ LitLovers:)
      I agree, I think Jennifer Mills is a great new talent. It’s not just that she has created a compelling story about Australia’s underbelly, it’s that she shows potential for writing about other aspects of Australian life. I’m looking forward to her next novel.
      Lisa

  5. […] Mills, winner of the 2012 SMH Best Young Novelists Award, is the author of Gone, a compelling novel which I reviewed last year.  Now she has produced a fine collection of short stories, guest reviewed here by Karenlee […]

  6. […] Mills (author of Gone which I reviewed a while ago) reviewed it for the Wheeler Centre’s website. Author: Gerald Murnane Title: A […]


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