Half Wild by Pip Smith
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.