In Alice Munro's celebrated short story "Miles City, Montana", the narrator confesses: "I loved taking off... I wanted to hide so that I could get busy at my real work, which was a sort of wooing of distant parts of myself." Looking back on her marriage to a dismissive husband who was scornful of her need for an inner life, she reflects that she "lived in a state of siege, always losing just what I wanted to hold on to. But on trips there was no difficulty...all the time those bits and pieces would be flying together inside me. The essential composition would be achieved."
These lines returned to me as I read My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, the latest novel by Canberra author Nigel Featherstone. The story opens with Patrick, desperately in need of a break from caring for his demanding elderly mother, taking off down the Monaro to Jimenbuen, "where the eucalypts surrendered to emptiness, as though here was the end of the earth". Unexpectedly, he encounters Lewis, a stranger with a message, and the two experience a deep connection. But respite is temporary; Patrick returns to his mother and Lewis disappears.
While the question of whether Patrick and Lewis will find each other again provides a degree of narrative impetus, the novel is digressive rather than linear. Narrated from Patrick's perspective, it moves fluidly between the present and Patrick's recollections of the past, taking account of life's smaller details as well as its more dramatic moments, such as caring for an ageing parent and coming to terms with heartbreak.
Ensconced in midlife, Patrick's childhood is "rapidly becoming the deep past", but its emotional privations remain fresh. Featherstone depicts life in all its complexity and contradiction, capturing the comparative freedom of childhood but also the long shadow it casts when it has taught you to repress your true self.
In his 2019 novel Bodies of Men, which examined love between two Australian soldiers serving in the Second World War, Featherstone sought to reclaim some of the stories of gay soldiers whose experiences have largely been suppressed in official histories.
Reflecting on his inspiration in an interview with The Canberra Times, Featherstone stated: "I'm more interested in bravery than I am in people being gay. I think being gay is a brave act, desertion is a brave act, finding love in strange places is a brave act, living our own life is a brave act."
This theme continues in My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, whose driving force is Patrick developing the courage to love. Raised by a mother who tried to quash his homosexuality, and having come of age during the particularly homophobic years of the AIDS crisis, Patrick learnt to keep his sexuality a secret, graduating from unrequited crushes in adolescence to furtive and ultimately loveless encounters in adulthood.
As his confidence develops, he indulges in nudity at Sydney beaches, but it fails to completely unlock his desires. Rather, the temporary release brings shame later: "I hated being burned, not just because of the obvious discomfort, but also because seeing colour on the parts of my body that should have remained covered was a reminder of what I did - it was evidence that I was not like most people, that in a way, I was a part of a secret society".
While homophobia is a salient feature of Patrick's experience, he is also enmeshed in other violent structures. There are the inevitable family dynamics that mean one child bears a greater share of unpaid domestic and emotional labour than their siblings, and the unreasonable demands of a parent who feels that they can never be repaid for their decision to bestow life.
These threads mark another parallel with Munro's female narrator, who experiences a belated outrage at the deficiencies of the adults she grew up amidst. She "[charges] them with effrontery... on behalf of all children, who knew that by rights they should have sprung up free, to live a new, superior kind of life, not to be caught in the snares of vanquished grownups."
Ultimately, the family is a microcosm of our society at large, which thrives on destruction rather than creation or preservation. Patrick's hope of finding Lewis mirrors his nostalgia for the wilderness he loved as a child, which is now being encroached upon by development.
His occasional sightings of endangered quolls provide fleeting moments of hope, but Featherstone doesn't labour the symbolism, permitting it to remain poignant and understated.
My Heart is a Little Wild Thing shows that ephemeral connections can be just as meaningful as the grand, enduring relationships our society venerates.
Like Munro's narrator, who finds peace and stability in movement, Patrick's wandering captures the ceaseless work of maintaining the self and achieving that elusive but all-important "essential composition".
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