Book of the week

HALF WILD PIP SMITH ALLEN & UNWIN, $33

The Dominion Post - Your Weekend (Dominion Post) - - Books -

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.

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