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The Secrets My Family Are Hiding: Little Gods by Jenny Ackland

April 3, 2018

‘A delicate evocation of a uniquely Australian childhood with moments of poignant almost-painful recognition.’ Sofie Laguna, winner of the Miles Franklin Award.

‘A stunning, searing novel that reads like an instant Australian classic.’ Myfanwy Jones, author of Leap.

4‘Olive had reached for happiness as a child not yet knowing that the memories she was concocting would become deceptive. That memories get you where they want you, not the other way around.’

In many ways, this extended family are closer than most, even though a dark secret from the past lies buried until our young protagonist sets her mind to unearthing it.

Twelve-year-old Olive May Lovelock knows that her family is a tad zany. In fact, she finds their quirkiness endearing. Olive herself is a deeply inquisitive and curious individual, prying information out of her beloved Aunty Thistle about topics as far-reaching as cannibalism, sex, ghosts, and family history. The family farm called Serpentine is crowded, boisterous, and noisy over summer as the extended family pilgrimage there for their annual holiday. Here, the wonderfully chaotic family scenes in Little Gods channel the likes of Tim Winton’s overcrowded, shambolic home in Cloudstreet (minus the pig).

But Olive can’t get out of her mind something a young boy from the community said to her, just before the family getaway. The boy (whom Olive finds ignoble) taunted her with the knowledge of a baby sister who passed away. But it couldn’t be true – could it? Her family, ever so close, has never mentioned it.

After some in-depth investigation within the family about the fate of her late sister, Olive becomes adamant that someone murdered her, and sets out to solve the mystery. Yet the overarching question remains: if her family is truly so close, why have they never spoken about Olive’s deceased sister before?

Her Aunt Thistle eventually confirms the rumour with the stark statement: ‘You had a sister, she died when she was a baby.’ But immediately afterwards, perhaps underestimating our shrewd protagonist, Thistle ruminates further: ‘Do you know how thin the line is between heaven and hell? See how fine it is, how we are so close to both.’ Thistle’s cryptic remark and her insistence that whatever happened to Olive’s sister was an accident, isn’t enough however to satisfy our little detective.

Plus, it turns out that Thistle’s not telling the whole truth anyway.

Little Gods is a remarkable read, for its authentic voice and its use of the appealing Olive as an immature, and therefore unreliable, narrator. Her quest to find the truth begins, admittedly, quite messily, as she doggedly pieces together whatever she can from her reluctant relatives.

The intrigue and intensity builds, the reader sharing Olive’s increasing frustration at not being able to find out what really happened to her little sister. It’s a slow-burn of a novel that reverberates with the avalanche build-up we have come to expect from truly outstanding Australian writing. Unsurprisingly, Little Gods has already been compared to Craig Silvey’s Jasper Jones and Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians. Like the characters in classics such as those, the characters in Little Gods feel completely real, their concerns become yours and their fate matters. They are idiosyncratic, insightful, flawed, and funny. They feel familiar, like people you’ve met before.

The strength of family bonds, adolescence, and revenge, are some of the interesting themes swirling about beneath the surface of the action in Little Gods. Ackland’s musical sense of writing and landscape further enhance it as a splendid reading experience. But above all, it’s this book’s astonishingly vibrant portrayal of Australia and girlhood, that really rocks.

Little Gods is a gem, not to be missed.

About the author

Jenny Ackland is a writer and teacher from Melbourne. She has worked in offices, sold textbooks in a university bookshop, taught English overseas and worked as a proofreader and freelance editor. Her short fiction has been published in literary magazines and listed in prizes and awards. Her debut novel The Secret Son – a ‘Ned Kelly-Gallipoli mash-up’ about truth and history – was published in 2015. Little Gods is her second novel.

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