When urban academic Hayley Katzen moves to a remote Australian cattle property to live with her farmer girlfriend, Jen, she hopes, at last, to find home. But this is no happy-ever-after tree change. Lecture halls, law reform and the arts are replaced with castrating calves, shovelling manure, fire-fighting and anti-gas blockades. In a place that attracts people who live by their own rules, Hayley must confront her limitations and preconceptions to forge her own identity.
Like all my upcoming reads for Better Reading, Untethered was in a pile of books I knew I’d be reading late May. And then my mother called to tell me about an author she’d met through her work with the North Coast Drought Appeal. The author was Hayley Katzen. So even before starting Untethered, I had an idea of the enormous challenges that have faced Hayley, her partner Jen, and their community recently, with drought and bushfires. I’ll admit it – I went into this read with both fingers crossed that it was good.
It is good. In fact, it’s excellent.
I very quickly found myself immersed in this very readable, beautifully written, fascinating memoir. Told with compelling candour and rigour, Untethered charts Hayley’s search for home. It’s set in the unpredictable beauty of the landscape of Northern NSW, but if you’re thinking Byron Bay, think again (although Byron is mentioned). Google Casino and surrounds and check out the landscape there. It’s a far cry from the coastal communities in the region.
Hayley has (along with many family members) emigrated from South Africa, looking for a better life. Her writing is honest, often brave, as she explores her past, her complex family relationships, her sexuality, her political ideology. She’s smart, often funny and complex.
Her life first in Sydney, and then later on the north coast of NSW (pre-farm life) is very much one I can relate to – Hayley is me, my friends. But then she meets Jen. First they move in the same circle, but when they both find themselves single, it becomes more.
The landscape, and Jen’s property Tywyah, are richly described, setting the tone for this fish out of water tale. But overriding the differences between her and Jen, is the strong love and bond. I loved the descriptions of Jen – in Australian literature we’re so used to seeing the almost mythical men of the land, while the women are supporters, keeping the homestead fires burning. In Untethered, Jen plays this role: her land imbues her, and she is a magnetic character. It’s clear why Hayley loves her.
Part love story and part off-the-grid adventure, Untethered is a powerful reminder that home can be found in many forms – in love, in family and friends, in ideologies and political movements, in landscapes and communities, and ultimately, in ourselves. It’s beautifully written, brave and as the reader, you’ll be cheering Hayley on, through seemingly insurmountable odds as she searches for those things we all crave – connection and home.
Untethered is a wonderful, intelligent, brave memoir. It’s a love story, not only between Hayley and Jen, but a love letter to the place where Hayley found home. I highly recommend it.