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'Little Gods' by Jenny Ackland (book review)

We travelled overseas for two months earlier this year, and I carried Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods with me all the way. (It is one of the real dilemmas of the booklover as to what books to take with them, and how many, when travelling, fully and somewhat guiltily aware that more books will be purchased en route.) Somewhere over the Middle East I opened Jenny’s book and began it, but before long, I put it down again. I was travelling away from Australia and didn’t want to be drawn back into it. This is a book which is distinctly about place, distinctly Australian. Specifically, north western Victoria, Mallee region. The blowies practically come at you from the pages. So I carried the book with me everywhere, only reading it when I was safely back in our little Australian town.

Having grown up in a small town, I find I’m often drawn to small town fiction. It doesn’t matter the location of the town, small towns have many things in common. So each book I place like a transparency over my hometown. The streets might veer off in different directions, rivers pass by alternate routes, different geographies (coastal, mountain, scrub), but the similarities remain. And a childhood in a small town usually means bicycles, public pools (if your town’s fortunate enough), a division between the farm kids and the townies, animals, and freedoms that aren’t generally the lot of the city kid. Little Gods has all of this, and is firmly placed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, so readers (like me) whose childhood straddled these years will identify strongly with it.

Protagonist Olive is a wonderful character. She’s 12, and she’s reached that age where the lives of the various grownups around her are starting to come into focus a little bit more, where she wants to interrogate them and be given answers to questions that are increasingly difficult. She occupies a place in a household where the adults are each nursing (and keeping from the light) deep wounds.

Olive, like a bloodhound, picks up on the scent of a family secret and follows its trail without giving up. In the process of discovery, she is dealt burdens of her own and forced, bit by bit, to grow up and find ways to handle her own scars. Little Gods is a celebration of family and of finding your place within it, but is also a study in grief, how we are able to continue on in spite of it, and how to honour the lives that are lost.

Jenny Ackland has written an Australian classic with Little Gods. Allen & Unwin have categorised it as a ‘Crime & Mystery’ novel and while there are both crimes and mysteries, I would have to suggest that this book is more literary fiction. I have to add that the cover design by award winning Sandy Cull will guarantee to keep this title moving, for those who buy books based on solely on their visual appeal!

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