Half Wild

Pip Smith

Half Wild
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Half Wild

Pip Smith

Sydney, 1938. After being hit by a car on Oxford Street, sixty-three-year-old Jean Ford lies in a coma in Sydney Hospital. Doctors talk across her body, nurses jab her in the arm with morphine, detectives arrive to take her fingerprints. She has £100 in her pocket, but no identification. Memories come back to her-a murder trial, a life in prison-but with each prick of the needle her memories begin to shift.

Wellington, 1885. Tally Ho doesn’t need to go to school because she is going to be a fisherman or a cart driver or a butcher boy like Harry Crawford. Wellington is her town and she makes up the rules. Papà takes her fishing, Nonno teaches her how to jump fences on his horse Geronimo-life gallops on the way it should, until a brother, baby William, is born. ‘Go and play with your sisters,’ Papà says, but wearing dresses and sipping tea is not the life for Tally Ho. Taking the advice of her hero, Harry Crawford, she runs away.

Sydney, 1917. The burned body of a woman is discovered on the banks of the Lane Cove River. Was she a mad woman? A drunk who’d accidentally set herself on fire? Nobody knows, until-three years later-a tailor’s apprentice tells police that his mother went missing that same weekend, and that his stepfather, Harry Crawford, is not who he seems to be. Who, then, is he?

Based on the true lives of Eugenia Falleni, Half Wild is Pip Smith’s dazzling debut novel.

Review

In her first novel, Pip Smith imaginatively recreates the life of Eugenia Falleni, a female-to-male transgender person who captivated Sydney in 1920 when Eugenia, living as Harry Crawford, was arrested for the murder of Annie Birkett, his wife, who disappeared in 1917. It is the story of the tough life of someone desperate to hide in plain sight, which sharply illustrates the effects that social convention and economic realities have on the formation of identity. Smith’s novel travels from an adventurous childhood in New Zealand to a string of escapes and near misses, hidden pregnancies, forced marriage and plenty of discrimination, ending in prosecution and imprisonment, release and a second, hidden life, cut short in a traffic accident in 1938. All of this plot is known before you begin reading; the publisher’s blurb appears to disclose the story, but somehow Smith draws a gripping story from facts that are already well known.

The novel’s central concern is not gender identity, but, in the vein of a howdunnit, it’s more interested in how Falleni managed to fool two wives and several neighbourhoods of Sydney in the low-tech and highly self-policed early twentieth century. In making this her focus, Smith has produced a novel that will appeal to pretty much anyone with any curiosity. Half Wild has a huge cast of characters who tell you the story of Harry Crawford in pieces, making it tense and intriguing. Though sometimes these jumps create repetition, the novel is well-paced overall. Pip Smith’s characters are impressively refined and sympathetic, and give room for lots of historical detail and subplots.

The best parts of the novel, in my opinion, are those told from Eugenia/Harry’s point of view — the magical realism and sharp eye of the child Eugenia (Tally Ho), scrambling around Wellington, demonstrates impressive skill. Half Wild isn’t queer fiction, as the premise had led me to expect; this enjoyable historical novel, driven by characters and mystery, will appeal to a broad audience.


George Delaney works as a bookseller at Readings Carlton.

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