EXCERPT: 1909 – out in that country
Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by with his wife, who had cost him twelve shillings once upon a time, and a wispy girl, who had cost him ten.
The people of the hut heard them first, the clop two three four of hooves, the creature-in-torment shriek of an axle and a mad symphony of rocking and rattling. They froze. Then, from the scrub line, came a bony horse, a wagon hung with pots and pans, a dog panting along in the lurching shade and three faces, dusty and gaunt.
‘Whoa!’ said the man, spying the hut and hauling on the reins.
The dust settled over the clearing. The pots and pans fell silent on their hooks. The horse hung its head and the dog belly-flopped onto the dirt.
After a while a child appeared, wearing a flour-bag dress and slipping soundlessly from beneath a sulky parked broken-backed in a collar of grass. Other figures joined her, the odds and ends of a used-up family, materialising from the hut, a barn, a post-and-rail fence and the tricky corners of the mallee scrub. Count them: a mother, a father and eleven children, ranging from a baby on a hip to a boy whose voice had broken, all staring at the apparition.
ABOUT ‘HER’: Out in that country the sun smeared the sky and nothing ever altered, except that one day a scrap man came by . . .
Her name is scarcely known or remembered. All in all, she is worth less than the nine shillings and sixpence counted into her father’s hand. She bides her time. She does her work.
Way back in the corner of her mind is a thought she is almost too frightened to shine a light on: one day she will run away.
MY THOUGHTS: Dark. Unsettling. Heartbreaking.
We follow the unfortunate existence of ‘You’, a child sold into a life of slavery with the scrap man for the princely sum of nine shillings and sixpence. She becomes one of his possessions, his ‘assets’, along with Wife and Big Girl. She learns to read human character, not least that of Scrap Man, who is a lazy drunken wastrel, and abuser of women and children.
Her is not a pretty book. It is bleak, but beautifully written. It is a portrait of a time that I am glad I never had to live through. It is a time my grandparents lived through and sometimes spoke of, although their upbringing was somewhat easier than Hers. It is a time of making do, scratching a living, dressing in clothes made from flour sacks, and avoiding the authorities who might take a child away and put into care. For no matter how terrible life may be, it was better the known than the unknown. No school – she could not count, add, subtract, spell, read or write. She could pick pockets and act whatever role was required of her, and quietly rob a house while the Scrap Man kept the homeowner otherwise occupied.
If you have ever thought longingly of the past, this is the book to disabuse you of your romanticized notions. Just like now, vulnerable people were victimized, abused, and left powerless. The gap between the haves and the have nots was just as wide then as it is now. We are, with our constant communication, just far more aware of it today than it was possible to be then. Not that this ‘awareness’ has made any inroads into fixing the problem.
There are also certain parallels with today’s Covid crisis. The country’s population, already short of able-bodied men after the first world war, is then decimated by the Spanish Influenza. No more than five people in a shop. A five minute time limit to enjoy a beer in the pub. Social distancing, although that term had not then been coined. And, of course, the mandatory masks, made from whatever was at hand, a pillowcase, an old rag.
If Her teaches us anything, it is that the more things change the more they stay the same.
Her is a powerful book. I loved it. I hated it. It ripped my heart out, but still I came back for more.
THE AUTHOR: Garry Disher was born in 1949 and grew up on his parents’ farm in South Australia.
He gained post graduate degrees from Adelaide and Melbourne Universities. In 1978 he was awarded a creative writing fellowship to Stanford University, where he wrote his first short story collection. He travelled widely overseas, before returning to Australia, where he taught creative writing, finally becoming a full time writer in 1988.
DISCLOSURE: I borrowed my copy of Her, by Garry Disher, published by Hachette Australia from the Waitomo District Library. I actually went to borrow ‘Hell to Pay’, the first in a trilogy of which I have the second and third books, but it was out on loan. This was the only of his books sitting on the shelf. I am so glad that I picked it up.
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