A review of Little Gods by Jenny Ackland

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Little Gods
By Jenny Ackland
Allen & Unwin
ISBN: 9781760297114, March 2018, 352page, paperback

Twelve year old Olive Locklock is a tough, intelligent and stubborn child who discovers that she had a sister who died. The secret begins to obsess her and she struggles to find out what happened.  As no one will answer her questions, Olive comes to her own conclusion about what has happened, and decides to take action to obtain proof and revenge. Little Gods is set in country Victoria, the Malee, where young Olive lives with her parents, not far from the family farmhouse, inhabited by her aunts Thistle and Rue and uncle Clegg, which Olive often visits. It’s clear from the opening ‘prologue’ that the book is a flashback of a single, pivotal summer, but it’s easy to miss or forget the opening until the last page as the rest of the book takes place through the moment of Olive’s recollection.

Although the narration does shift at times, most of the book is in Olive’s point of view, and she is a strong and quirky narrator. Though it’s handled lightly, there is a suggestion that the Locklocks are considered eccentric in the community, with a history of mental illness and peculiarity. Olive herself is forceful and a little too ‘brave’. She pushes her friends to do things they don’t want to do, doesn’t listen well, and gets so fixated on her ideas about what happened to her sister that she plots out an outrageous form of dangerous and poorly planned revenge. In spite of her pushiness, Olive is an appealing heroine, with one foot in childhood and one in adulthood, an arc that happens through Little Gods, primarily due to tragedy and what she learns through her ‘investigations’. She has a soft spot for abandoned animals and forms a close relationship with Grace, a tamed raven, and Olive’s compassion and close observation is clearly shown through this relationship:

When Olive held Grace’s tail feathers in her hand, there was a soft sharpness to the edge against her palm, the interleaving feathers cross-hatched as they narrowed from the body to the tail. With her face right down close, looking on an angle, she could see that the feathers were not solid black at all. There were secret colours hidden, all types of purples and greens, and like petrol in a puddle they were iridescent, oily and beautiful. (44)

She is also somewhat neglected. Olive is universally ignored, even by her most attentive aunt Thistle, who speaks frankly but is wont to wander off after telling Olive something that is both important and cryptic: “You need to learn about oscillation, Olive. It’s an important part of growing up.” Thistle gives Olive champagne and no one seems to notice when Olive continues to drink it. Olive’s mother, the always well-turned out and remote Audra, rarely hugs or speaks to her daughter and even Olive’s urgent questions are answered in an offhand way: “Her mother wasn’t even looking at her, she was at the doorway doing something with the knob.” (154) Olive is allowed to go rabbit shooting with her uncle even though it traumatises her, and is often left to her own devices and manages to get hold of a gun, a knife, drive a car, stays out all night in an abandoned shack, and even smokes a cigarette, all without any of the adults knowing. When Olive becomes seriously depressed to the point of not eating, there is minimal response from the adults. There are a few other mysteries in Olive’s life. Olive’s uncle Clegworth seems to have had a car accident in which his pregnant wife and unborn child were killed – a tragedy that is referred to only briefly, though it appears to have been his fault. There is a son who was forcibly taken from the unwed Thistle, unable to be found, though it appears that Cleg and Thistle have spent many years looking for him. These mysteries are not clarified, nor do we ever find out what or whose bones and pills are found by Olive, though the control that Ackland shows in not tying up the ends of these unwritten stories works, and creates an authenticity that mirrors the baggage that everyone carries. The Lindy Chamberlain case is referenced several times, which dates the book as early 1980s, and also mirror Olive’s quest to find the fate of her deceased younger sibling.

The book’s setting is particularly evocative and beautifully written, from the hot vinyl seats of Clegg’s ute to the moment when Olive jumps into the Mallee dam:

Eyes jammed shut, everything was silent apart from the beat of blood in her head. She found something to grab, a branch from the felled swamp box and, with her arm stretched, held on and let herself rotate at the shoulder. Her body wanted to rise. Her other arm was spread swide. She relaxed in the deep, let herself tilt like wet star. Her breath was saved and she hed it and held it and pushed her mind forwards. Ending, ending, but still she stayed under just to be in that cool distant place for a while longer. (43)

The book is full of scenes rich with sensual detail that contrasts the suburban world of Ackland’s home life versus the country life on the farm:

The neighbours clipping bushes and pushing hand-mowers, the burring sound of the rotating blades clipping across the grass. The scrape of a rake at the edge of the footpath, metal on cement.” (18)

There are summer “plays” with the cousins, arguments and adventures that are tender, angry, supportive and offhand. This is a time before the mobile phone and during the summer holidays the cousins interact with one another through play, exploration, and subversion. It’s clear that Olive is the ring-leader in these sometimes dangerous games, exerting a charisma that is hard for the others to resist.

Ackland handles these themes carefully and subtly – never overstating or diagnosing Thistle or Audra, or giving us too many answers in the mystery, but treating all of the characters with a kind of tender acceptance that is unconditional. Mysteries remain. Time moves forward. Memory is entirely unreliable, but the clues it leaves us are all we have. Little Gods is a poetic book full of beauty, loss, and resilience, exploring what remains in our lives as we move past our pivotal transitions and crises.