‘Suddenly she felt very tired, closed her eyes, leaned towards him. She couldn’t. She just. She thought of her sister – her clothes, haircut, questions. What it is to be a girl.’
It’s 1968, and in a sunny beachside suburb of Perth, young Orla Blest is growing up. Life could always be better, but on the whole Orla thinks she has it pretty good: she’s got her imaginative younger sister, Deebee, to play with, she has great friends at school, and every second Saturday, she has horse-riding lessons with a beautiful, good-natured pony called Nugget.
Saturdays are particularly special because Orla’s dad drives her to horse-riding, and for a few precious hours, she gets him all to herself. Her father is a shining light in her world, but he’s often distant towards Orla for reasons she can’t understand, and she’s always yearning to connect with him, to get closer. It’s on Saturdays that his walls come down, and on the way to horse-riding, they laugh and talk in the car. Orla looks forward to those car rides more than anything.
But one Monday morning, Orla’s dad doesn’t come home. He works hard at the factory, pushing through night shifts and hours and hours of overtime, and Orla thinks he might just be running late. But hours pass, and soon Orla and her family learn the awful news: Orla’s dad has died unexpectedly on the job.
That’s when life changes for Orla. She feels it physically: it’s a tectonic shift, a rearranging of her life into ‘before’ and ‘after’. She keeps going to school, of course, keeps working as hard as she can because she knows that’s what her dad would have wanted. She learns how to take care of Deebee after school, when her mum needs to take on more work to support them, and for the first time ever, she finds a boy who seems interested in her as more than just a friend.
But with her mother often absent, and her beloved father gone, Orla doesn’t have many people to turn to with questions about growing up. On the cusp of adolescence, she must learn to navigate the challenging path between girl and woman alone – and to navigate a world that suddenly seems much more threatening now that her father’s strong presence isn’t there to protect his daughters.
The latest novel from award-winning Perth-based author Marcella Polain, Driving into the Sun is a captivating, heartbreaking, deeply beautiful read. In her afterword, Polain mentions how important it is to remember that children have complex and vibrant interior lives, and this is captured perfectly through Polain’s portrait of Orla. As the main narrator of Driving into the Sun, Orla’s voice is engaging, her hopes, joys and worries amplified in a way that feels deeply authentic.
This authenticity is enhanced by Orla’s inner monologue, with fragmented sentences and repetition giving her voice a realism that’s poetic and gripping. Consider this passage, which takes place immediately after Orla learns of her father’s death: ‘She had to get up. Because she could be. She could be wrong. She had to breathe and breathe. Her heart. She could be wrong. She had to… Get up… Walk the passage. Slow. Stop. Press fingers. Look. Look. Breathe. Face it.’
Polain’s description of 1960s Perth is engaging, with the author painting a picture of a world still very much ruled by men. As a widow, Orla’s mother can’t take out a loan on a new house, because she needs a male guarantor. The Australian bush is prominent in the story too, and described so beautifully, you can almost feel its midday light and heat. The gum trees at dusk are ‘a handful of slender bruises: mauve, indigo, charcoal’.
If you loved The Lost Flowers of Alice Hart or Boy Swallows Universe, you’ll devour this dazzlingly original, bittersweet, Australian coming of age story. A stellar read.
About the author:
Dr Marcella Polain was born in Singapore and immigrated to Perth when she was two years old, with her Armenian mother and Irish father. She has a background in theatre and screen writing, and has lectured in the Writing program at Edith Cowan University. She was founding WA editor for the national poetry journal Blue Dog, has been poetry editor for Westerly and was inaugural editor for the WA journal Indigo. She has published essays on writing and completed her PhD at the University of Western Australia in 2006.