Book review: Little Gods by Jenny Ackland

Saturday, May 5, 2018 Permalink

Although Little Gods is – in many ways – a poignant tale of loss, much of book offers an idyllic insight into the lives of children and teens in the early 1980s.

I was certainly sent into many a reverie as our lead characters rode their bikes around town, stopping off at the pool to partake in the odd bomb dive, shared flavoured bubble gum with friends, read macabre books featuring obscure facts, were treated to cheezels while adults indulged in cabana and cheese on special occasions and computers were just becoming a thing. I chuckled also at the memory of having to use carbon paper and the accompanying messiness. 

Book review: Little Gods by Jenny AcklandLittle Gods
by Jenny Ackland
Published by Allen & Unwin
on April 1st 2018
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: General Fiction, Literary Fiction
ISBN: 9781760297114
Pages: 320

The setting is the Mallee, wide flat scrubland in north-western Victoria, country where men are bred quiet, women stoic and the gothic is never far away. Olive Lovelock has just turned twelve. She is smart, fanciful and brave and on the cusp of something darker than the small world she has known her entire life.

When she learns that she once had a baby sister who died — a child unacknowledged by her close but challenging family — Olive becomes convinced it was murder. Her obsession with the mystery and relentless quest to find out what happened have seismic repercussions for the rest of her family and their community. As everything starts to change it is Olive herself who has the most to lose as the secrets she unearths multiply and take on complicated lives of their own.

Olive and her cousins are the offspring of a couple of brothers marrying a couple of sisters. Although there were three in each family, the oldest of each are alone in this novel and probably the two pivotal adult characters. I adored Olive’s ‘maiden’ aunt Thistle and her eccentricities. Of course, we learn they’re more than that and there’s good reason why.

This is a book about secrets and adults who try to do the best by their children but kinda screw them up anyway. I guess that happens in more families than not and all we can hope is, they work out okay despite / in spite of that.

I was initially going to comment on the lack of helicopter parenting evidenced in this book (and perhaps of this era)… noting the free-range parenting that allows the kids a significant amount of independence, but I suspect the eccentricities (and dysfunctionality) of Olive’s family (and others we meet) are more at play than anything. Although her withdrawn mother and loving but kinda-ineffectual father and married aunt and uncle keep the adult / child boundaries tightly in place, Thistle and her (other) uncle Cleg are more prone to share life’s brutal honesties with Olive and her cousins.

Thistle talked and Olive interrupted with questions. Olive liked it because her aunt could be easily persuaded away from the usual adult topics…..

The topics that she most wanted to talk about were: murders, ghosts, whether it was possible to dig a hole to the centre of the dearth. Also: aliens, snakes, various types of poisons, poison in darts, poison in fangs, scorpions and their poison, mummies in Egypt, zombies and cannibals. Thistle has talked to her and Sebastian about cannibals, about the menschenfresserin, Dark Teutonic stories of men eating men and sometimes children. p 32

I really loved Ackland’s writing and noted phrase after phrase – so taken by the turn of words she draws on and twists together.

I loved this story. It’s a slow narrative and takes a long time to unfold. Even then…. not much really happens. It’s more a beautifully told snippet of a young girl’s life. It’s about the loss of innocence and I note Ackland (separately) comments on wanting to centre a coming-of-age novel around a young girl.

It’s sadly poetic in many ways… Olive learns of family secrets, loses her beloved Grace, senses the fallibility of the adults around her and starts to separate from the cousins and best friend who’ve been her mainstay.

There’s a wistfulness about this book – at least for someone of my era – and warm sense of nostalgia mixed with the bittersweet outcomes of unfolding events.

And I chuckled at the ingenuity of kids. Something I’m sure is still reflected in the Millennials and Gen Zs of today but perhaps less evident because much of it may take place in a virtual or hidden world.

I have to admit I was a bit befuddled at some key points in the novel however and had to read part of it a few times to understand what happened… in particular the revelation near the end. I wondered if Ackland tried to be a little too abstruse so it wasn’t completely clear, though it’s highly likely I’m just overly obtuse and missed the nuances.

There was also a mystical quality about Olive that possibly wasn’t explored as much as it could have been. She often talked about being ‘in the real’. I kept waiting for a twist (she wasn’t human / she was dying / her family was Indigenous) that didn’t come. She was an enigmatic lead but could possibly have been unforgettable…

Olive sat on the rattan couch on the verandah with everything made strange about her. It often happened at the end of the day that she realised she wasn’t in the world. She could see that all else was as usual but somehow she wasn’t. p 68


Olive stayed in the cool gloom of the room as her parents loaded the car. Her body had been taken from her and she was floating, removed from her own self. She was now in a place–or a not-place–where she existed without knowing anything. The same origins, maybe, that babies come from. It might have been a place covered with water, or in the sky so far above she couldn’t couldn’t see the earth anymore. Wherever she was, everything had been taken from her. p 215

But these were minor points and didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the book overall. Had I not gotten slightly confused and been unsure of the outcome of the crux of the plot, this book with its beautiful writing and delightful lead would probably have been one of my favourites this year so far.

Little Gods by Jenny Ackland was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.

I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 



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