Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 31, 2020

Untethered (2020), by Hayley Katzen

I’m not very keen on reading memoirs, but Untethered is a good example of why I should never say ‘never’!

Hayley Katzen was a 30-something gay academic lawyer when she met Jen, a cattle farmer in remote NSW.  Uncertain about the longevity of the delight she feels in Jen’s company because of their intellectual and social differences, and conflicted about the geographical constraints of a Sydney v The Bush relationship,  Hayley nevertheless chucks in the unsatisfying career in law and takes up studies in acting… which enables them to have a two-household relationship for a while.

They are very different people.  Jen is eleven years older, rugged, physical, capable with practical things, confident and secure in herself, and not given to introspection. Hayley OTOH is a muddle of neuroses stemming from a difficult childhood and estrangement from her family.    She has a fraught relationship with her mother in Sydney, and no contact at all with her siblings.  She still has an affectionate relationship with her stepmother and some extended family in Johannesburg, but while she’s sustained that with regular visits since emigrating after her father died, over time the distance begins to affect the extent to which she feels part of that family with whom she had been more connected than with her own.

Although this is a memoir marked by rigorous candour, she is circumspect about the reasons for this estrangement and hostility, which is something I respect.  We can only guess at her reasons, but with family still alive, she has chosen to focus instead on her own story and what she has made of her life on her own terms.

Hayley doesn’t feel that she belongs anywhere geographically, psychologically, or professionally.  So it took courage to decide, eventually, to move in with Jen at Tiwieh (tie-a-wire), her property out beyond Casino.  As you’d expect, there is culture shock, about all the things that city people find difficult about bush life.  Hayley wants to do something purposeful with her life but (quite apart from mostly being hopeless at most of it,) she isn’t comfortable living Jen’s life of castrating calves, shovelling manure, fighting fires and getting involved in local community life.  She tries volunteering at the local school, running a drama class, and preserving tomatoes — there’s even a half-hearted attempt to have a baby — but none of it is satisfying.  She takes up writing — but even then, she flounders around trying to find a form of writing that suits her.  (A problem that this beautifully constructed memoir suggests has been resolved).

If this sounds at all like a giant whinge, it’s not.  This memoir is written with humour and self-awareness.

In winter housework included another job: splitting firewood for the stove that heated the house and the ‘water jacket’ that boosted the solar hot water.  After driving in among older trees and regrowth, after finding an appropriate dead tree, after Jen chainsawed the log, after I tossed sawed-up logs onto the truck’s tray, after we unloaded those logs beside the chopping block, they had to be split to fit the stove.

‘Can you teach me how to chop wood?’ I asked one day.  I felt cocky: I’d once been a crack tennis player; I had good hand-eye coordination.  How different could splitting wood be?

Jen anchored her feet shoulder-width apart, placed her left hand near the handle’s top, right hand lower down.  ‘Aim away from knots or growths, preferably where there are cracks.’ She swung in a fluid motion, allowing her hands to move and the axe to fall with its own power.

‘Mmm, nice,’ I said, enjoying the poetry of how her body moved, the leanness of her hips, the firm muscles of her shoulders.  Bad feminist.

‘Go round the edges if it’s too hard,’ she said, ‘Just keep chipping away.’

I groaned — another bloody lesson in tenacity and patience.

I set myself up, looking down at my boots hip-width apart, feeling the weight of the axe, getting my eye in.  I was in character: the countrywoman. I pulled the axe back and swung — to an anticlimax. The point of the axe speared the wood but made barely a dint.  I wrestled it free from the log.  Again I tried, and again.  No thwack, no crack — just a dull thud and a long decorated with a Morse code of gashes. (p.114)

(This reminded me of my own efforts with logs for a combustion heater during my fifteen long months in the bush.  Even now, decades later, I still appreciate the simplicity of flicking a switch to get instant warmth!)

The memoir takes a different tack when bushfire claims the house and they have to negotiate the emotional and practical challenges that entails.  The universal challenges of migration and belonging, the urban-rural divide, and living as a gay couple in a conservative community are tested in the aftermath of the fire, bringing new tensions to the relationship.  There are further tests ahead when the prospect of fracking propels the community into activism.   Fracking is a big issue in Qld and NSW, especially in the northern rivers area, and the battle to fend off Metgasco made national news in its day.  Hayley’s not a practising lawyer, but she has expertise and a role to play.  But even then there’s a chasm between Jen’s passion for the cause, and Hayley’s different attitude to the land.  And like any straight couple dealing with ageing parents, they also find that Jen’s frequent absences to care for her dying mother adds strain to their relationship.

There are not many memoirs where I have read late into the night, unable to put the book down because I had to know whether Hayley and Jen survived it all!

Author: Hayley Katzen
Title: Untethered
Cover design by Deborah Parry Graphics
Publisher: Ventura, 2020
ISBN: 9781920727444, pbk., 367 pages
Review copy courtesy of Ventura via Anna Lensky at Pitch Projects

Available from Fishpond Untethered: A Memoir and wherever good books are sold.


  1. Sometimes one comes along that pushes through our resistance and becomes the exception. I can see how this might intrigue, there’s something traditional and almost old fashioned about the setting, of a woman moving to the countryside leaving everything familiar behind her, but there is nothing stereotypical about them, thus intriguing to see how they manage.


    • It certainly is an extreme case of opposites attract…


  2. You couldn’t get more opposite. I usually like memoirs if well written and not too much navel gazing. This sounds an interesting life for both women involved. The fracking protests would get my interest. I hate fracking. I enjoyed hearing about this book.


    • It’s made me realise: this is the first time I have read anything in OzLit about fracking. Such a huge issue with such potential for a great novel, (country folks turn into political activists!!) yet.. nothing.
      (Unless it features in rural romance? Sexy geophysicist meets sexy anti-fracker maybe? Feel free to recommend titles that meet the brief!)


  3. […] I hate being Untethered, by Hayley Katzen […]


  4. […] Untethered (2020) by Hayley Katzen […]


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