Amanda Curtin’s atmospheric novel begins with a bizarre and horrific murder at the Sinkings, in Western Australia, 1882. Flash forward to the present and reclusive, aging writer/editor Willa is reflecting upon the daughter that has gone away from her. Tying these two narratives together are the hermaphroditism of both ‘Little Jock’ – the victim in the past, and Willa’s daughter Imogen.
Willa is drawn to the story of Little Jock, particularly due to the detail that upon his death, his mangled body was first thought to be that of a woman’s. Willa becomes obsessed with Little Jock’s story, and partakes in extensive genealogical and historical research, all the while dealing with her own reluctance to be around other people, and the guilt for the way she handled her own daughter, Imogen. Willa has had a difficult life, and feels some decisions were forced upon her without her knowing what else to do. Her regret consumes her, and she wraps herself up in the past to try and understand her daughter, herself, and the plight of hermaphrodites throughout history better.
Little Jock’s story, though, is the gripping, absorbing part of the novel. After we know his fate, we are taken back in time to his superstitious birth in Ireland, his first years as a girl, his journey to Scotland during the Irish famine in the 1840s, his lucky escape from a freak-show scout, his adoption into a new family after their own son is lost (and his subsequent treatment as male), and his many years imprisoned, finally ending up in Fremantle Prison, Western Australia. All of Jock’s story is so well-rendered, it is easy to become lost in scenes, empathising with his fear at being discovered. There must have been a great deal of research involved for Curtin, but also a great deal of vivid imagining. Her descriptive sentences and perfect dialogue draw you deeply into the past.
That said, while Willa’s story in the present is also well-written and brings forth a modern-day connection (how little social mores have changed, how complex absolute tolerance is, the connection between the happenings to Jock and the cosmetic mutilation Imogen underwent), I found it much less interesting. It was hard not to skip forward to the next chapter set in the past. I think Willa’s story is necessary, but I didn’t feel she had to be so present so much of the time, doing the same things – sitting at a computer, stroking her cat, Lucifer. The cat comes up far, far too much for no real reason than to scratch at things and draw Willa to look at them.
Despite this small gripe, I did really enjoy the novel. And the ending was surprisingly and pleasantly unexpected. Curtin is a really wonderful writer and there is so much of interest in this novel. An absorbing, dark, and detailed story of prejudices, the past, and what tending to the roots of it might change; and what will, and sometimes should, remain unchanged.