Half Wild by Pip Smith
PUBLISHED BY ALLEN AND UNWIN
REVIEW BY CALLIE STEVEN
Half Wild is an unusual story of the seedier side of our past that fleshes out the mystery of Eugenia Falleni, the 'man-woman' who scandalised Sydney in the 1920s. Based on historical evidence, this mystery is told from multiple perspectives and with different text types, including extracts from newspapers. This gives the book the feeling of reality, especially towards the end where Smith’s supposition merges with reality to create a story of a transgender man living in the early 1900s.
Beginning in Nina’s childhood, the novel employs some beautiful writing with vivid passages of description that transport the reader back to the late 1800s. She is a troubled child living in poverty in New Zealand and, when only 13, she runs away from home, dresses as a boy and gets a job in a quarry. This does not last however, and she is forced back home, but her spirit is undaunted. Early on she learns the valuable lesson of how to survive and beat wage inequality: be a man.
As she gets older and finds herself, magic realism is employed to slowly reveal events to us. The problem is that this sometimes makes readers unsure of what is imagined by Nina, now known as Harry, and what is actually happening. However, a clear sense of voice establishes an authenticity to the characters and setting that questions our acceptance of others, identity and how far society has actually progressed. It’s a fascinating insight into a different world so close to our own but yet so foreign.
At its core, this book is a mystery: even though you know what’s going on, you just don’t know how she did it. In an era sharply defined by stereotypical gender roles, how did she manage to fool people for so long? This novel goes a long way to imagine that, showing the way others react to her truth.
Although the cast of many characters is hard to keep track of, the multiple perspectives is fascinating; this story really attempts to grasp the idea of our masks, and what people actually see when they look at us. The novel creates an atmosphere of reality, highlighting the dreariness of working class 1920s and the gender restrictions imposed on society. It allows us to reflect on our own society today and how far we’ve come in some ways, but not in others.
Find this novel in store at Planet Books. Ask the friendly staff for guidance too, and they’ll be more than happy to order you in a copy if it’s already sold out.