I was aware of Garry Disher as a writer of crime novels, but amongst the many books he has written there is great diversity. Her is set in early twentieth century, and I normally prefer stories based in contemporary time, but the themes were timeless – those of extreme poverty and the lack of choices that this leaves people with, and the ways this manifests itself, in the most vile sense or with amazing strength and resilience.
The book is bleak. Scrap man acquires girls and exploits them in many ways. He attempts to sell goods, with the aid of Wife, who he got ‘”on me fif birfday”. She thought she was maybe twenty years old. She couldn’t count past twenty. He’d put his thing in her but a baby hadn’t come, so he bought Big Girl’.
Then he bought the girl he called You from her impoverished parents, when she was around three-years-old, but she ended up naming herself Lily. She narrates the story. Big Girl was probably a teenager when she had a baby. This child also wasn’t given a name until Lily gave her one – Hazel.
Lily was torn between wanting to be the scrap man’s’best thief and pickpocket’, and wanting to escape this horrible life. She grew up ‘working’, never going to school, knowing what play was, being with children her own age or having anyone who cared for her.
She took responsibility for little Hazel and that special relationship was the only positive aspect of her life, being ‘mother, father and older sister’. ‘Life with the scrap man had shut down Wife and Big Girl. When he was away they were intent on survival. When he was home they were anxious’. But Lily managed to keep something inside herself alive, despite what she and Hazel were exposed to.
This intense and moving story shows children living in such primitive conditions, with horrific abuse yet offers glimpses of hope.