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The Grass Castle by Karen Viggers
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The Grass Castle

by Karen Viggers

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The Grass Castle is a big book, covering a lot of topics ranging from domestic violence, loneliness, mental illness, ageing, kangaroo culling, racism and family issues. It’s a big job to cover so much in one book. Not everything is covered in great detail, but that’s reflective of life in my opinion – we can’t be everything to everybody. With this softly paced, quiet novel, Viggers captures life from a distance in all its ups and downs.

The main character of The Grass Castle is Abby, a PhD student who is studying kangaroos. Her work is predominantly out in the field alone and that’s how she likes it. Scarred by the death of her mother and the violent relationship between her father and his de facto, Abby wants peace and quiet. Not to cause a ripple in the pond. She even avoids her fellow students due to the noise and interaction. Deep down, Abby’s afraid to connect with another human.

Then she meets Cameron, a journalist doing a feature on the booming kangaroo population during the drought. Against Abby’s better judgement, they start a relationship in which Cameron falls hard. Abby doesn’t feel quite the same, even though Cameron sticks by her during numerous family issues. Abby also comes into contact with Daphne, an elderly lady who lived on the farm where Abby studies her kangaroos before it was turned into a national park. Through flashbacks, the reader gains an idea of how things were different back then – the harsh treatment of the Aboriginal people, relationships with family and the relationship with the land. Daphne and Abby strike up an unlikely friendship and the narrative weaves between Daphne’s history and present day alongside Abby. Meanwhile, tensions run high in the community as a kangaroo cull is proposed.

The narrative has a quiet, lyrical feeling to it as if the reader is standing back, watching things unfold through a misty lens. At first I found the pace rather slow, but as the book progressed I found myself looking forward to the chance to slow down and lose myself in the book. Others may find the pace too slow for their liking. As for the characters, I warmed to Daphne straight away – she’s a (great) grandmotherly type who has a lot of wisdom to share, but doesn’t always get the chance as the rest of her family seem to have written her off due to age. It’s when Daphne’s with Abby that she really gets the chance to shine and be valued as a human. Abby is a bit more of a cold fish, unwilling to reveal much of herself at once to the reader- it was really only in the latter half of the book that I began to like her. Possibly this was because I thought Cameron was a great character – warm and patient with everyone and Abby’s reluctance with him annoyed me somewhat. He’s a catch!

The book will also make you consider where you stand on kangaroo welfare. Kangaroos have the ability to hold off breeding until conditions are favourable and in the book, they’re at record high populations in a drought. There simply isn’t enough food for them. Is a cull the answer? And if the cull goes ahead, should the joeys (baby kangaroos) be killed too? Daphne’s viewpoint of the farmer (shoot them) is in opposition to those of her granddaughter (a wildlife carer), while Abby sits on the fence. She’s an ecologist, she knows the population isn’t sustainable…but is culling the answer? Viggers also goes into Aboriginal land rights but I didn’t feel this was extensively covered and may be a little patchy to foreign readers who aren’t aware of the background.

If you enjoy books with a dreamy feel to them, this book would be of interest to you.

Thank you to Allen and Unwin and The Reading Room for the eARC of this book.

http://samstillreading.wordpress.com ( )
  birdsam0610 | Feb 22, 2014 |
The Grass Castle is a quiet, introspective novel exploring the themes of displacement and belonging, grief and healing.

Abby Hunter is a struggling PhD student who prefers the isolation of her fieldwork in the Brindabella mountain ranges to the bustling activity of the university lab. Wary of relationships since her mothers death, she is content with the company of the Kangaroo’s she is studying, but a chance meeting with elderly matriarch Daphne Norrington, and the gentle persistence of journalist Cameron Barlow, penetrates her reserve and Abby is finally forced to deal with her tragic past.

Unfortunately I found I didn’t particularly connect with Abby, she is too passive and reserved for my tastes, and while I had some sympathy for her difficult past I didn’t really understand the choices she had made since, nor some of her behaviour during the story. I did admire eighty five year old Daphne, who weathered so much tragedy in her life, including the compulsory acquisition of her home by the government, and the deaths of her son and husband. The friendship between the women develops from their connection to the land and their mutual need for both for a confessor of past trauma and support in the present.

The romance between Abby and Cameron is low key, part of Abby’s journey rather than a focal plot point. There are political elements in the novel in regards to the efficacy of kangaroo culling, indigenous land rights and media/political spin. I found them a little intrusive at times, even though I largely agreed with the sentiments.

This is a reflective novel that mediates on the need to accept and learn from the past and though The Grass Castle didn’t fully engage me, I could appreciate the way Viggers evoked the setting, in both the past and the present, and the emotions in her characters. ( )
  shelleyraec | Feb 4, 2014 |
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The daughter of a pastoralist, Daphne grew up in a remote valley of the Brindabella Ranges where she raised her family with her husband Doug in a world of world of horses, cattle and stockmen. But then the government forced them off their land and years later, Daphne is still trying to come to terms with the grief of her departure from the mountains and its tragic impact on her husband. It is during a regular visit to her valley that she meets Abby, a lonely young woman shying away from close contact with others, running from a terrible event in her early teens that has shaped her life. But like the grandmother who cared for Abby when her mother was ill, Daphne is a patient mentor, and slowly a gentle friendship develops between Abby and Daphne. While Abby's family history means she tries to ignore her feelings for journalist Cameron, Daphne struggles with her own past and the long shadow it may have cast over the original inhabitants of their land. Both women must help each other face the truth and release long-buried family secrets before they can be free. The Grass Castle is a moving and captivating story of displacement and belonging, love and forgiveness. Above all, it is about the strength which resides in us all: the courage to grow and learn from the past.… (more)

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