Little Gods by Jenny Ackland – Book Review

Nicole Melanson ~

 

Writer Jenny Ackland Book Cover - Little Gods

Little Gods is a coming-of-age tale with gothic undertones about twelve-year-old Olive Lovelock navigating her place in a web of family secrets. Set in country Victoria, this book swirls with parents, aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates, and townsfolk, all of whom seem to know more about Olive’s past than Olive herself. Headstrong and inquisitive, Olive soon discovers that she had a baby sister who died and embarks on a mission to unearth the truth about the baby’s death and hold those responsible to account.

There’s a strong sense of nostalgia in Little Gods. Anyone who grew up in the days when children were allowed to roam without constant supervision will recognize the heady combination of freedom and fear experienced by Olive and her peers. These are children who explore their world without questioning their liberty to do so. What they feel goes beyond entitlement—it shows an investment in their own welfare and that of their companions. There are no adults watching their every move, ready to step in with guidance or rescue at the touch of a cell phone.

There is legitimate risk involved in Olive’s adventures and the possibility of dire consequences never disappears, whether Olive is sparring with local bullies, the Sands brothers, or probing her mentally unstable aunt, Thistle, with philosophical questions about life and death and a desire to learn more about her own family history. This is a book that asks what happens when we treat children as free spirits and allow them to operate as such. It makes an interesting contrast to the helicopter style of parenting popular today, where we are more physically protective of children, and yet, more relaxed in sharing information with them.

Little Gods also explores mental illness in a way that feels honest and true in its ambiguity. Olive’s aunt Thistle lives life closer to the surface than the other adults. Her conversation is lively, her opinions impassioned. She is wildly entertaining but resists caricature by succumbing to moods that flatten her. We see not only tenderness in the way the other adults treat her, but also the kind of weariness that comes through years of enduring the instability and unpredictability of someone else’s moods; even when siblings and in-laws are enjoying her, they’re cautious. Thistle is never diagnosed bipolar, but it doesn’t matter—we observe how she passes in and out of wellness, with devastating effects all around.

There’s occasional confusion around points of view in Little Gods, with the narrative going through noticeable shifts in voice, but this feels like a reasonable style choice given the protagonist is twelve; at that age, you struggle to draw clear distinctions between your own story and that of those around you. The fact that we as readers aren’t always 100% sure who’s speaking seems appropriate coming from a child just starting to recognize adults as individual entities separate from herself. It also offers some justification for sections where it’s difficult to keep track of how many adults are actually in the room and how they’re related to each other. You only have to listen to a child asking why their parents have different mothers, or suddenly realizing that a particular aunt or uncle isn’t actually a blood relative to appreciate that it takes years for children to work out how families fit together.

It must also be said that voice is Little Gods’ biggest strength. Ackland’s language is balanced and precise. She has a gift for making writing seem effortless, with a lot of her sentences scanning like poetry, and her work is liberally sprinkled with images and phrases that offer a fresh spin on ordinary situations. This is a moody, evocative book that stays with you long after you finish reading.

Little Gods can be purchased from all great Australian book shops and is also available from Allen & Unwin here.

For more information about the author, visit Jenny Ackland’s website, or find her on Twitter @JennyAckland.

You can also read her wonderful interview with Amanda Curtin here.