Review - Half Wild, Pip Smith

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Half Wild
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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. Papa 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,' Papa 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.

Book Review

In 2005, the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney had an exhibition of police photographs from the early twentieth century. One of these that caught the eye of author Pip Smith was of a man called Harry Crawford, arrested for murder. It turned out that Crawford was actually a woman, Eugenia Falleni, who had been passing herself off as Crawford since 1899. Crawford/Falleni was arrested and convicted for the murder of one of his wives, although the circumstances surrounding this case were vague and sensationalised by its protagonist, known in the media as the “man-woman”. Pip Smith has taken the bare bones of this story and contemporaneous transcripts and newspaper articles to fashion a captivating version of Falleni’s life.

Half Wild works in four distinct sections. The first, and most successful of these is the first person narration of Falleni’s childhood in New Zealand. Falleni was one of a brood of Italian children literally running wild on the streets of Wellington and even then battling with her identity and sexuality. This section of the book is rambunctious, sometimes surreal, and utterly engaging, although disturbing in parts. The short second section is Falleni’s reinvention of herself into the Scottish immigrant Harry Crawford as she moved from New Zealand to Sydney.

The bulk of the rest of the narrative is told by a range of voices and a dramatis personae that precedes it helps understand who they all are. Smith creates a patchwork of voices and impressions of Crawford/Falleni which include the son of his/her missing wife, his daughter and the police. This culminates in transcripts from Falleni’s trial for the murder of her first wife. Throughout this period Falleni maintained her innocence and Smith makes sure that the crime remains ambiguous. It is never certain that the burnt body found on the banks of the Lane Cove River was Falleni/Crawford’s wife. Nor is the evidence against her ever anything other than circumstantial. The final section is in the final years of Falleni’s life when she has reinvented herself again as Jean Ford and finds herself leaving prison.

Half Wild is disorienting but deliberately so. Falleni starts as a fabulist with a healthy imagination and that aspect of her personality, her mercurial nature is the only constant. Smith shifts the narrative style to reflect Falleni’s reinvention of herself which gives multiple views of the character but never anything frim to really grasp onto.

As the same time, Smith delivers a strong feeling of time and place – both Wellington in the 1880s and Sydney in the 1910s – both through her descriptions of those places and period detail but also through the speech and attitudes of her various narrators.

Half Wild is a brave experiment that for the most part comes off. The story is always strongest when seeing the world through Falleni’s point of view and starts to run out of puff a bit when it constantly shifts point of view through the third section. But overall this is a fascinating exploration of a fascinating character and an extremely strong and unique debut.

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