Book of the week
HALF WILD PIP SMITH ALLEN & UNWIN, $33
Reviewed by Elizabeth Heritage
Idon’t read the blurbs of books I’m reviewing until after I’ve finished reading the book, because I want the book to unfold with only the information the author wants me to have. For Half Wild, this was a good decision; and if you too are going to read it, I recommend this strategy. But it leaves me with the problem of how to review this novel without giving the game away.
So let me try this: Half Wild is Australian author Pip Smith’s first novel. It is set in Australia and Aotearoa a century or so ago, and contains some seriously excellent writing: “She’d look at you with her eyes all misted over, as if someone was having a bath inside her head.”
The first protagonist we get to know in detail is Tally Ho, known to her parents as Nina; a young Kiwi-italian tomboy in Wellington in the late 19th century. She skips school to run wild with her friends and rebels against the gendered expectations of little girls: “Everything was tiny and breakable, because being a lady was about not breaking things, and the winner was the person who couldn’t break the tiniest thing.”
Smith is also a poet, bookseller, songwriter, and actor; and you can feel these roles in her writing. Half Wild has a strong sense of performance and of its own construction, with the narrative being told through different formats and points of view. Smith poses and then evades questions of what “really” happened and who people “really” are: “‘the truth’ was a room with the blinds down and the lights out. You could only see if you pulled the blinds up… but then… It would become something else entirely.”
At around the halfway mark, my interest began to wane as the story wandered too far away from the main characters. Half Wild could easily stand to lose at least 50 of its nearly 400 pages. But the central conceit of the book – which I’m tying myself in knots to not spoil here – is strong enough, and Smith’s writing is consistently skilful enough, that the reader’s effort is rewarded.