Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 19, 2022

Hydra (2022), by Adriane Howell

If you’re in the mood to channel your inner brat, you will enjoy Hydra, the debut novel of Adriane Howell.  Here’s how it begins:

This is not the beginning in narration’s traditional sense — things had come before — but if you’ll humour me a little, I’ll start by speaking of my work at Geoffrey Browne, where we were vultures scavenging remains.  After a funeral, in we’d waltz with our Post-it notes: yellow for indexing, green for research, pink for Primas.  We’d strip houses to the bones of their walls and clean them of mouldings too, drilling deep, tearing out cartilage to gain the sale items, thicken the catalogue — profiteers of death.

My dear friend Beth said I was too hard on myself, that an auction house was hardly the Serengeti, that I was prone to pessimism and exaggeration — ‘miserabilism’, she called it.  But that wasn’t true,  I liked the word ‘miserabilism’; it felt good rolling around the tongue, proving an appetite for life.

Metaphor aside, the reality is I had no qualms ransacking dead people’s houses.  It was a thrill finding an object hidden for generations and unearthing its narrative.  Who had dusted it, lounged in it, held on to it with a false sense of duty? And for how many decades had it sat in the one room, absorbing years of cheer and anguish that left stains even the most skilled carpenter couldn’t sand away. (p.3)

As you can see, the author has a great way with words. And you can also see that the protagonist-narrator does a nice line in cynicism and black humour, and that she lacks, shall we say, a certain practicality?  As an executor, I’ve packed up a couple of deceased estates and even though I’d known both of the deceased for decades, even I had trouble ‘unearthing the narrative’ of some objects.

Anja, however, is in the grip of a fantasy.  She’s an ambitious antiquarian, working in the Mid-Century Modern Department of Geoffrey Browne’s Auction House.  Back at work from the holiday on Hydra which ended her marriage, she has dreams of reorientating the classification system which has always served sellers and buyers so well, so that objects will be classified according to the emotional response they evoke — by which she means, of course, her emotional response.

Anja’s nemesis is Fran, with ambitions of her own, asserting them by sitting in Anja’s chair in admin.  These two tussle over clothing as emblems of good taste.  Anja wears a ‘winking panther’ designer brooch to exude confidence in the way that some women wear red lipstick.  (Anja confides little gems like this to her bemused readers throughout the text).

Fran twice tapped the plastic cat with her fingernail.  ‘You always make such bold choices,’ she said, sitting on my desk to face me.

It was my fault we’d lost any sense of personal space: I’d been too festive at the last Christmas party and pulled at the stitched bonbons on her holiday-themed skirt.  She’d spent the next several months poking and prodding at my clothing to reclaim ground I’d conquered.  (p.7)

#Digression: O feminism, where are thou when the younger generation so badly needs you?

Well, things go horribly wrong, and Anja ends up unemployed and unemployable in her chosen field, and in a histrionic gesture she uses an inheritance from her mother to buy a derelict house hived off from the neighbouring naval base on the Mornington Peninsula.  Again her ambitions are trumped by reality: growing vegetables in an abandoned boat on a salt-laden coastline is never going to work.  Again her ideas about herself are a fantasy.  She is not only broke and lonely and not self-sufficient (see vegetables above) she is also haunted by an urban myth.

Ah ha, that brooch was not so random after all.  The Anja narrative is interrupted from time to time by redacted 1986 reports from Naval Intelligence.  Google urban myths in Victoria and you will find the source of Anja’s startling experiences, and (of course) the ‘cover-up’ by authorities who debunk it time after time.  These gothic elements do not distract the reader from the suspicion that Anja is an unhinged, bad-tempered character who can’t get along with other people.

Deliciously entertaining!

Author: Adriane Howell
Title: Hydra
Cover and book design by Peter Lo
Publisher: Transit Lounge, 2022
ISBN: 9781925760989, pbk., 256 pages
Review copy courtesy of Transit Lounge


  1. This sound like great fun, having also packed up a few estates in my time, but with some meaning too. I like the fresh sound of the voice.


    • It’s a brutal process… though in my limited experience the valuation was done not by a smart young woman with a fancy brooch but by a weaselly bloke in shabby clothing, which I suspect was intended to mask any impression that he might be making a huge profit!


      • Fortunately all mine have been for family so we had no valuation issues … just discussions about what people wanted and agreement to donate or toss, if rubbish, the rest.


        • Which is as it should be in all circumstances. Alas, greed gets the better of some people!


          • Yes, I know. I was so lucky … I know people who have been not do, even with family (or, is family often the worst? I’m just so grateful that I only came out of each one exhausted, and not bruised.)

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I like the style of writing in this. Like that word miserablism.


    • Me too. I’m going to use it in a review, first chance I get!


  3. It sounds like fun. The voice reminds me of Ellie Baxter’s New Animal, which was set in a funeral home, so there’s another link!


    • Now that’s an interesting comment…
      Because that title rang a bell, and I searched your blog and re-read your review, and you replied to my comment that you thought it was not a ‘Lisa book’.
      So maaaaaaaaaaybe I might like it after all!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. LOL, I regularly channel my inner chimp which I suspect is much the same, so I might actually like this book!


    • I like the way her inner commentary so often echoes what we think but don’t say…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m more likely to channel my inner miserablism atm, so I may identify with the narrator in an unhealthy way!!


    • *chuckle* Better pack your best china away out of harm’s way then!

      Liked by 1 person

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