THE GRASS CASTLE
Author: Karen Viggers
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
Karen Viggers’ The Grass Castle explores a number of themes, including forgiveness, making peace with the past and redemption. Once I realised it was mostly set in the Australian Capital Territory (the Brindabella Ranges in particular), with some trips to the gorgeous High Country in Victoria, I was keen to get stuck into this book, because they are area I remember well (and miss). It’s always nice to read novels set somewhere close to your heart – there’s that instant sense of familiarity. For me, the descriptions of these places were the stand-out aspect of the book – Viggers captured the essence of the area well.
Abby, a scientist and PhD student, studies kangaroos in the Brindabella Ranges. It’s solitary work, but it suits Abby fine; she’s not really interested in having friends, a bustling social life or a relationship. The loss of her mother some years before has left a gaping hole in Abby’s heart, her father’s remarriage has rubbed salt in the wound, and her brother’s struggle with depression worries her. When she meets Cameron, a journalist following the story of planned kangaroo culls, Abby puts all thoughts of a relationship out of her mind, but the inevitable happens and Abby soon finds herself pushing Cameron away, scared of getting too close.
Daphne, an older woman who grew up in a remote valley Brindabellas, meets Abby and the two form a friendship. Daphne shares her story of growing up with a controlling pastoralist father, raising her family in the high country with her husband Doug, and later being forced off the land by the government. It was a move that had tragic consequences for Doug, and Daphne’s never gotten over it. As she reflects on this, she can’t help recalling the Indigenous people who were forced off the land, and connecting this to the kangaroo culling plans now under way. As the women share their stories, fears and regrets they help each other realise that sometimes letting go is the only way to be free.
Underlying this story of relationships, forgiveness and making peace with the past, is the issue of displacement. Viggers examines this in a number of ways, beginning with the displacement of Indigenous people, then the pastoralists and now the kangaroos. Viggers does her best to bring balance to a loaded and multi-layered issue, using a number of different characters including a scientist, a journalist and an Aboriginal elder. I found this aspect fascinating and thought-provoking on a number of levels. Viggers’ research and aptitude for detail came to the fore here.
However, the story started very slowly and it took me quite a while to warm to it. It ended up being a stop-start read for the first third or so, as I struggled with the pace and found other things to read. Abby’s detachment from society transferred to the reader and while it could be argued that this was intentional, it made it difficult to want to be part of her story. As she opened up, I became more interested in her story, but it took a long time. Her hot and cold relationship with Cameron frustrated me; while understandable given her past, I just wanted to tell her to open her eyes and see the man in front of her as the decent person he was. Daphne’s story interested me more; on the one hand, I wished there was more input from her, but on the other, I respected that she was stepping back a little for the younger woman.
Overall, I thought this was a thoughtful read, but it fell short of being a great read. The author’s love for the country didn’t quite transfer through to the rest of the story, which was a bit of a let-down. I did find the writing a bit dry at times and other reviews I’ve since read would indicate that I’m not the only one. If it hadn’t been for the setting, I think I’d have struggled more.
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin via a Goodreads giveaway.
Bookish treat: Starburst Babies gave this story a bit of zing.