Update, February 2019: So thrilled that Little Gods has been longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize. Read more here.
Update, March 2019: She’s only gone and made the Stella Prize shortlist!
Launch speech for Jenny Ackland’s Little Gods
Welcome everybody, thanks for being here. Thank you Allen & Unwin, and Readings for hosting us tonight.
I’m enormously happy to be here tonight with Jenny to launch her extraordinary new novel. For context, I’m an Australian writer; I’ve been living overseas for nearly 30 years; 20-odd years in New Zealand. So my connections within the Australian book scene are really important to me. And I hold very dear my connections with other Australian writers; they keep me plugged in (to be sappy for a moment: they nourish me).
Like many modern relationships between writers, Jenny and I first met on Twitter, probably close to 5 years ago now. We’re Bad Diaries Salon partners in crime. So I’m here as a friend, and I’m here as a fellow writer and Bad Diaries Salon compadre, and I’m also here as a fan of Jenny’s beautiful writing.
And it’s as a fan – as a reader – that I came to this beautiful book; and I come away from it even more of a fan than ever of Jenny’s clever, careful, keen-eyed writing.
And I come away from Little Gods as a fan of Olive May Lovelock.
Little Gods is the story of Olive May Lovelock, and “those dark sticky years” [p.2] of the summer Olive turned twelve.
Roll that smooth and beautiful name around on your tongue: Olive May Lovelock. Olive Lovelock. It has such wonderful mouthfeel, that name. You won’t forget her name, and you won’t forget Olive Lovelock, once you’ve met her and her odd and messy and intriguing family.
Though Olive is little, she is fierce. She’s the odd, prickly, intelligent child who is set slightly apart from almost everyone. She’s not pretty, like her cousin, Mandy Milk. She has “the sudden sharp glance of a child who takes in everything and annoys most adults she [comes] into contact with.” [p.27]
Olive is watchful: she wears her grandfather’s binoculars around her neck:
“‘For seeing birds better,’ she told the adults.
‘For spying on people,’” she tells her best mate, Peter. [p.7]
Olive looks, and she listens. She seeks out places to be, unseen, where sights and sounds (and secrets) filter through: the “monster of branches and broad roots” of the peppercorn tree; behind “the thick drapes in the Green Room”; the “pit-like space under the verandah … enclosed with latticework … the perfect spot for children to lie on their backs and eavesdrop on adults, waiting in the dark for secrets to be revealed”. Secret places, abandoned places – a tunnel, a bunker, her father’s woodshed – are important in this book. They’re places out of time, out of normal life: liminal places, the in-between.
Olive is very much in that liminal space – “trapped in the savage act of growing up” [p.2] – no longer child, not quite adolescent, in the in-between limbo that’s neither one state nor another, and yet exists in the space between – it’s right at the centre – and that liminal space holds such possibility, and potential.
The verandah is (as well as being quintessentially Australian) the ultimate liminal space – a space of entry; not quite outside, not quite inside, yet both at the same time – and in Little Gods, the verandah of Olive’s uncle and aunt’s farm house (Olive’s second home) is “the main arena of action”. “All kinds of properties were scattered across the rattan chairs and couches, in announcement that here resides a family.
Here resides a family. And what a family. The first thing we know about them is that they are odd. Or considered odd. “Those Lovelocks, people would say, their looks loaded with meaning.” [p.5]
Olive’s mother and two aunts are “the Nash sisters, a clutch of prickly women … Three girls maturing behind a high hedge with neighbours on both sides who strained at fences and peeked through holes.” There it is again: spying, hiding, concealment.
There are three Nash sisters and three Lovelock brothers; “two sisters had married two brothers with one of the sisters and one brother left over”, and it’s those leftover siblings that are the most interesting: Thistle Nash and Clegworth Lovelock (more of those delicious Jenny Ackland names with wonderful mouthfeel, names to rival Winton’s Jaxie Clackton, I reckon).
The messy, complex, communal nature of this family is delightful (and disturbing). It’s funny, it’s sad; it’s full of secrets and withholdings. It’s complex. It feels very real, and yet there’s a really lovely sense of unrealness to it. The almost fairytale names (Olive’s aunts, Rue and Thistle; her cousin Mandy Milk); the slippage of comprehension, of things half-heard, perhaps half-said, often misunderstood; the beautiful (intentional) slippage of language (particularly Olive’s language, and her Aunt Thistle’s gnomic utterances; Thistle and Cleg’s wordplay) that places it outside the everyday – so it has that perfect mix of feeling very real (right down to the Cheezels and cabana and cubes of cheese on the table), while feeling heightened and almost mythic.
Like all the best fairytales, this novel has lost or missing children at its heart: Olive helps her uncle Cleg type up his “mother work”, his research into forced adoption; the trial of Azaria Chamberlain’s parents is in the news; there are babies long ago lost, never spoken of, including the little sister that Olive discovers she had and whose fate she determines she will uncover; even Grace, the young bird that is Olive’s “familiar”, comes into Olive’s life because she’s separated from her bird family. There’s an abandoned tunnel – one of the book’s liminal places – where teenagers go to “ kiss and smoke cigarettes”, called Dead Girl’s.
Uncovering the secrets of these missing children is a theme and a narrative that runs through this novel, and plays out in complex, unexpected ways.
And Olive May Lovelock – smart, fierce, brave little Olive – carries it all, and she carries us all, as readers, through this rich, clever, funny, devastating, heart-and mind-pleasing novel. As you will all find out when you read it, as I hope and know you will very very soon.
It’s with delight that I declare Little Gods, Jenny Ackland’s second novel, duly and officially launched.
Readings Carlton, 20 March 2018
Little Gods by Jenny Ackland is published by Allen & Unwin, and available everywhere.