Reviewed by Rod McLary
The author has set Her in western Victoria in the early twentieth century and the novel spans some ten years in the life of the eponymous character Her. She has no other name except that which she gives herself after a customer refers to ‘pretty garland lillies’ in her hearing. She believes the word has a beautiful sound and so she names herself ‘Lily’.
The story begins with the entry of the Scrap Man with Wife and Big Girl. None of these characters is named – they are simply known through the story as Scrap Man, Wife and Big Girl. Scrap Man needs another child to assist him in his shady dealings. He and the others travel across western Victoria selling what they can of trinkets, pieces of cloth, and scrap. As a sideline, valuables are stolen from houses, the pockets and wallets of men and the purses of women. Being small and insignificant is an advantage and hence Scrap Man’s search for another child. He finds a family even more destitute than his and makes an offer for their youngest child – a young girl of about three years. The price is agreed and she is his for nine shillings and sixpence. In a similar way, Scrap Man had some time previously bought Wife and Big Girl.
The next ten years of the life of Lily – or You as the others call her – is charted in the novel. It is a life characterised by poverty, cruelty, physical and sexual violence. However, due to her innate intelligence, Lily is able to survive. As she grows older, Scrap Man begins to search for a younger smaller child to take her place. Big Girl is made pregnant by Scrap Man and a child is born. As with the others, she is not named but Lily is told by a neighbour that she has hazel eyes and enjoying the sound of the word names the child Hazel. It is a name that only Lily uses.
There is little interaction by the ‘family’ with the wider community except when peddling their wares and stealing. Other times, the community is a threat through its agencies like ‘the Social’ or ‘the Education’ represented by groomed and intelligent men on horseback – agencies which will only take Lily away. Instead, she is forced to appear ‘simple-minded’ by remaining mute and slack mouthed.
The author – Garry Disher – is an historian and his knowledge of Australian history informs this novel. Unfortunately, it also creates an emotional distance between the characters and the readers. While the characters experience a level of hardship and deprivation largely unknown to 21st century Australians, there is little in the novel which engages the reader and allows the reader to share on an emotional level that hardship and deprivation. There are frequent but indirect references to violence such as ‘backhanders’, ‘toecaps’ and ‘Scrap Man knew how to use a whip’. But the story fails to emotionally engage the reader. Little is said about the inner life of any of the characters. The reader knows when physical violence has occurred but the impact and effects of the violence on Wife, Big Girl or Lily is not drawn.
Later, when the first sexual assault on Lily by Scrap Man is perpetrated, the reader is told some of the physical effects but nothing of the violation of Lily’s emotional and psychological integrity.
Yet, there are some beautifully written sentences – especially those which describe the landscape or individual buildings. Similarly, observations made by Lily evoke the feelings of a child when faced with uncertainty such as – ‘Her felt eyes at her back. The people of all the years of the building’s existence were watching from the dark corners’.
Garry Disher grew up in South Australia and has an MA in Australian History. He has travelled the world and was awarded a creative writing Fellowship to Stanford University. He is now a full-time writer and has written over 50 books. ‘Her’ is his most recent book.
by Garry Disher