Twenty-five years ago, Sandy and Rich met as part of “the Blockade,” an environmental protest against the damming of Tasmania’s Franklin River. It worked: the government called off the construction, and Sandy and Rich’s relationship got a lift in the warm tide of optimism that followed.
But real life didn’t offer the couple the same thrills as chaining themselves to trees or singing protest songs. Sandy’s recycled jewelry and Rich’s freelance photography barely covered the bills, and when Sandy announced her unexpected pregnancy, Rich’s suggestion that they move to Borneo did not go down well, and the couple separated for the next 15 years.
Cue the present day, when Rich has decided to re-enter the scene, wanting to get to know his daughter Sophie. While he has been using a job editing infomercials to fund his photography trips around the world, Sandy has been stuck in a hippie enclave with her friends (who are as judgmental as you can well imagine — what, you mean you didn’t say the correct prayers when you planted a sacred tree over your placenta?) Now, he makes Sophie an offer: why not do the six-day Cradle Mountain hike with me in Tasmania? It’s a walk thousands of people do each year; it’s challenging but a great opportunity to get to know each other again. Sandy is horrified when Sophie accepts, but Sophie, a hard-shelled and organized fifteen-year-old Goth, has had about enough of her soft and indecisive mother, and is ready to test her dream of what her father might be like.
Landscape is an enormously important feature of this book. Cate Kennedy describes the rigors and the beauties of the Tasmanian wilderness, which is both tough and unimaginably fragile. Similarly, Sophie and Rich’s relationship begins to erode quickly under stress. Rich isn’t prepared for a daughter who won’t adore him, and in fact he’s not all that adorable. Not only does he have difficulty seeing the world around him as anything other than a photo op (he is annoyed when Sophie wants to walk next to him rather than in front of him, because he can’t capture the lonely-figure-in-the wilderness picture he wants), he is oblivious of anything outside his own needs, and completely fails to realize that Sophie is eating almost nothing at all.
The main flaw of this book is that the parents are both ridiculously easy targets. The book switches perspectives, seeing things from Rich’s, Sandy’s, and Sophie’s different points of view, but it is coolly contemptuous of the parents no matter whose vantage point we have. Kennedy takes pains to make fun of both Rich and Sandy even when it stretches plausibility. In one instance, Sandy hears from Sophie’s excited teachers that she has built an “emo goth” website that is extremely clever, has done all the coding herself, and has made it very popular. Sandy goes home and, after accessing her dial-up internet (Sandy has resisted getting broadband because… we are not sure why, perhaps as a Rage Against the Machine gesture) searches for the term “Elmo goth.” Really? Elmo doesn’t even rhyme with emo. I could see searching for “imo” or “eemo” or “emoh.” But “elmo?” Rich and Sandy are supposed to be childlike, stuck in their pasts, but they wind up as flabby caricatures. The book would have been significantly better with more complex adult characters.
I will say, however, that Sophie is a bracing character, and the descriptions of the landscape make for interesting reading. This was a debut novel from Kennedy, who has also published short stories, poems, and a memoir. I’d be curious to see more from her, and see how her writing develops.