Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 2, 2018

Half Wild, by Pip Smith

I thought long and hard before setting up my Gay/Lit LGBTQIA books category, because I like it when authors simply include LGBTQIA characters as part of the furniture, so to speak.  If you’re writing about the modern world, then chances are that your characters ought to include some who are LGBTQIA because LGBTQIA people are everywhere.  In rainbow families with or without kids; in schools, religious communities and the workplace; and lately, openly in our parliament.  Which is all good, and as it should be, and so I shouldn’t really need a separate category.  But it would be naïve to think that discrimination has gone away, or to imagine that some don’t suffer a crisis of identity, so there is also a place for books which explore issues of gender identity rather than treat diversity as a given.  These books serve purposes both for those of us who seek to understand and those who relate to characters facing that kind of existential crisis.

Half Wild shows us the cruel consequences of a time when discrimination was so routine it was not even recognised as such.  Sydney-based author Pip Smith has recreated what was a 20th century salacious scandal to bring to life the humanity of its central character.  Eugenie Falleni was a real person who struggled with transgender identity, and Half Wild fictionalises the story of multiple lives: a childhood defined as a daughter; of an adolescent running away to live and work as a man; of two marriages where the wives did not know about the disguised sexuality of the person they had married; and ultimately of a stepfather —revealed before the courts to be a woman—charged with the murder of the first wife.

The novel is bookended with the memories of an elderly woman in hospital.  Jean Ford was hit by a car in Oxford Street and is drifting in and out of coma.  Her thoughts are incoherent, and then in a new chapter titled ‘Who She’d Like to Be, Wellington New Zealand, 1885-1896’, the story proper begins with the first person narrative of Tally Ho, baptised Eugenia and known to her bemused Italian parents as Nina. When she sees her mother having morning sickness once again, she declares that she doesn’t want to have babies…

Her face went still like the refrigerated pigs I once saw in the bond store at Queen’s Wharf.
Well, what are you going to do? Mamma said. Be a nun?
No, 
I said.  I’m going to be a sailor, or a driver down the West Coast called Tally Ho, or a butcher boy like Harry Crawford.
She ruffled my hair.  She said I was a funny little joker.  Then she said I’d better get my tally ho to school or she’d butcher me herself. (p.12)

School, as you can imagine, is torture, and not just because Nina struggles to learn to read.  There is a Father Kelly who knows the difference between an insolent child and a child who was not meant for the schoolroom but as soon as Nina escapes from his efforts to help she bolts away, feeling good to have that stale school air squeezed out of [her] lungs so nothing but life could flood back in. Her Nonno Buti gives her important advice designated by capital letters, that he has learned in solitary confinement during the Italian wars:

He said, YOU MUST TRAIN YOURSELF TO IMAGINE CHESS MOVES INSTEAD OF TO THINK ABOUT THE FACT THAT YOUR CAPTORS DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, OR THAT IT IS YOUR FAULT YOUR CAPTORS DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU, OR THAT YOU SHOULD BE MORE LIKE YOUR CAPTORS.  QUESTO È MOLTO IMPORTANTE.  (p.18)

While those times were never benign for people of ambivalent gender identity, Tally Ho’s adventures are a reminder of times when childhood could be livelier.  (I found myself wondering, what will the children of today’s helicopter parents make of the adventures we had in childhood, adventures inconceivable today?)  The world seemed wide and full of possibilities for Tally Ho, even though Papà eventually finds out about wagging school and said

… if I was going to run around like a boy instead of going to school then I would have to work like a boy and see how I liked it.
I nodded, and looked at my shoes, and tried to act punished. (p.32)

But that freedom doesn’t last, and when Papà thinks there’s been enough of these silly games, Nina is corralled into washing pinafores and mending trousers.  Worse, with puberty comes peril from a man with lips like two leeches searching for warmth which lands Nina in a brief marriage and a sojourn in reformatory for wayward girls when she escapes him…

The next section, only a few pages long and titled ‘As Far as He Can Remember, Sydney, 5 July 1920’, is narrated by Harry Crawford.  He’s in an interview room with the police, carefully answering questions about his life.  This section is followed by ‘To All Outside Appearances, at Least, Sydney, Australia’.  It’s much longer, with multiple narrators listed as ‘Dramatis Personae’ from all over Sydney.  The statement of Detective Sergeant Steward Robson in scraps of typewritten font begins with a reminder that police have to be particularly careful in securing identification and from there on the tale branches out across multiple witnesses that reveal the many selves confronting Robson and the court.  Testimony comes from wives, one dead and one alive; from a stepson and a daughter; and from fellow workers, boarders and landladies.  The press, the gossips and the prurient have a field day.

This section of the novel jars against the insouciant optimism of Tally Ho, revealing to the reader the sadness of a life oscillating between the different roles others expected to see.   As Pip Smith says in the Author’s Note at the back of the book, she doesn’t claim to speak for Falleni.  These voices are imaginings, performances, and attempts at creating an empathetic bridge between then and now, archives and feeling, Falleni and us.  It is remarkably well done, and this book deserves its place on the Voss Literary Prize shortlist, and the 2018 Indie Book Awards longlist.

Theresa Smith liked it too. See her review here. 

PS Grammar 101: Could I just make mention of a spelling error that was one of a few that should not have escaped the attention of the copy-editors of a big company like Allen & Unwin?  One does not pour over anything, unless doing it with liquid which flows continuously.  Rain can pour, and milk can be poured. But one does not pour over photographs, one pores over them, meaning that one is reading or focusing on something intently. I have seen this error so much in print in the last few months that I am beginning to think that the battle is already lost, as it has been with the noun loan in use as a verb…

Author: Pip Smith
Title: Half Wild
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2017, 390 pages
ISBN: 9781760294649
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: Half Wild


Responses

  1. […] Of course, I read other things while reading FW because a book like that needs to be balanced by other less demanding reading.  I’m having the same issue with my current book which is the 1000 page trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, by Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset.  I have just finished Book Two (phew!) and am surviving because I’m reading other things as well.  I’ve just finished Pip Smith’s Voss-shortlisted Half Wild (my review on its way is here). […]

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  2. […] Pip Smith, Half Wild, see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes (I’ve got this one on reserve at the library) See my review. […]

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  3. […] Pip Smith, Half Wild see Theresa’s review at Theresa Smith Writes Update 2/12/18 See my review. […]

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  4. […] McKinnon (HarperCollins Australia) See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt (Hachette Australia) Half Wild by Pip Smith (Allen & […]

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  5. Oh, I love you Lisa!! I am so cranky about the “loan” business! Why, when there’s a perfectly good word in “lend”? I think as librarians we’ve been particularly affronted by this misuse of words to describe something fundamental to our profession.

    I enjoyed your comment about the LGBTQIA category. I created it and then deleted it recently – and yet I do use Indigenous Australian. This whole labelling business is so fraught.

    As for your actual review I’ll read it properly later if I manage to read the book.

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    • Yes, loan as a verb sets my teeth on edge…

      Re the category: what I’d really like would be for it to grow and grow as more and more LGBTIQA characters make their way into the books I read:)

      Liked by 1 person

  6. The growth of making nouns verbs is very irritating and seems to be increasing. Some of the worst offenders are those in positions of power and influence unfortunately. Poor language is surely a reflection of the sloppy thinking that prevails in our culture. When we have a Prime Minister addressed as ScoMo on the ABC there is not much more to say. Or am I being difficult?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, I don’t know… I don’t mind language changing, but I like the changes to be rational. It might make sense for some nouns to become verbs, but not if a perfectly good verb is already available IMO.

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  7. I’m glad you’ve now read this and enjoyed it. It’s such a unique novel and very well written. As you point out, well deserving of its place on those prize lists.

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    • Yes, and what I think is particularly clever is that for a good bit of novel I didn’t twig that some of the characters were actually one and the same.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting to see this true story has been fictionalised. I read about the real Eugenia in Mark Tedeschi’s excellent non-fiction book a few years ago. I wonder if Pip Smith used that in her research? (My review is here: https://readingmattersblog.com/2016/02/14/eugenia-a-true-story-of-adversity-tragedy-crime-and-courage-by-mark-tedeschi-qc/ )

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah yes, she does mention Tedeschi’s book in the acknowledgements.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. […] Pip Smith, Half Wild, see my review. […]

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