The Grass Castle by Karen Viggers

In brief: Abby’s a lonely student who spends her time in the field monitoring kangaroos. A chance meeting with Cameron, a journalist, and Daphne, an elderly lady bring her into the world.

The good: Lyrical, dreamy quality of the narrative.

The not-so-good: Some may find the pace rather slow.

Why I chose it: Sent to me by The Reading Room and Allen and Unwin – thank you!

Year: 2014

Pages: 407 (ARC)

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Setting: Australia

My rating: 6.5 out of 10

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.

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