An astonishingly fresh and surprising novel of adventure, heartbreak, grit and love, set in the Australian bush.
In the bush of 1920s New South Wales in Australia, readers observe a young woman digging by a river and then running for the hills. Her story unfolds slowly, in fractured time and brief views, in The Untold, a dreamy debut novel by Courtney Collins based on the life of legendary Australian wild woman Jessie Hickman.
Jessie’s past is varied and often tragic. She left home at 12 to join the circus, then moved on to an illustrious and mostly successful career rustling horses. At age 21, she was convicted for stealing two chickens. Upon her release from prison, she fell in with a rancher who put her back to work stealing horses and cattle, then forced her into a profoundly miserable and violent marriage. Her latest traumas have now sent her, and her beloved horse, Houdini, crashing uphill. They are headed for the top of the highest mountain she can see, through driving rain and flowing blood, in the scene that opens the novel.
Jessie will encounter gangs of men and boys, some friendly, some not: there is a bounty on her head and the residents of the town and the bush have turned out for the hunt. Among those pursuing her are a former lover–an Aboriginal tracker–and a police sergeant, purportedly working together but each unclear which side he’s really on; their quarry exerts a strange magnetic pull and counter-pull. As the reader is increasingly drawn into the story, The Untold rushes precipitously toward a heady convergence among Jessie, Houdini, the gangs and the two men with more personal business to conduct.
Collins has composed a truly startling and singular saga, set in a wild and brushy backdrop of mountains and elemental forces, peopled with hard-edged creatures of all sorts who each have a savage mood and a desperate will to live. Death is a consistent theme in Jessie’s life, beginning as early as we can know, but she has a surprising ally. In fact, while Collins keeps her reader guessing throughout, the biggest surprise of all is the narrator’s role in Jessie’s story.
The Untold is lyrical and untamed, with a firm emphasis on survival and redemption and a full array of improbably charming characters, none with an unstoried past but few as feral as Jessie herself. The reader will be as exhilarated as the protagonist by her struggles, and quite possibly come up gasping for air.
This review originally ran in the May 8, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.
Rating: 9 handfuls of mud.
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