The Drifter by Anthea Hodgson

In brief: Cate has never been known to stick at anything, but after a tragic accident she’s staying put in the bush. What she doesn’t know is that in the middle of nowhere, she will start to feel like she belongs…

The good: Sensitively written, it’s an engaging story.

The not-so-good: Henry is reluctant to give up his secrets.

Why I chose it: From the author and Penguin Books, thank you.

Year: 2016

Pages: 354

Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)

Setting: Mainly country Western Australia

My rating: 9.5 out of 10

The Drifter is a book that sneaks up on you, until you’re completely captivated by its charm and melancholy. I’m a fan of Australian rural fiction, yet The Drifter is a unique fit as it deals with loss, secrets, life, death and grief. Despite the heavy subject matter, it’s an ultimately uplifting story.

The book begins as Cate arrives at her great aunt’s farm. Cate’s always been a drifter, darting from job to job with no real purpose but after a devastating accident she’s forced to reassess her life. Life in Perth is not what it used to be, so Cate decides to help Great Aunt Ida in the middle of nowhere. It’s not what the party girl expected, with no mobile phone reception and Ida’s thorough job of hoarding decades’ worth of items. Cate is willing to have a go though, and Ida is more than happy to accept her. Ida is a gentle soul with a great deal of wisdom. In her own quiet ways, she integrates Cate into the small community, increasing her self-worth. She doesn’t question or judge, but lets Cate grieve and heal in her own time.

One thing that Cate does find a bit odd is the way Ida insists that there’s the ghost of her late husband doing jobs on the farm. After a little detective work, Cate discovers ‘Henry’, living in an old shack. Ida is delighted that her ghost has a name (and a nice body), but Cate is much more wary around Henry. Swaggies (swagmen) aren’t really a modern thing in Australia, so what has Henry got to hide? A drifter like him must have some secrets too…

Little by little, both Cate and Henry’s reasoning for hiding and secrets come to the fore. However, Hodgson still leaves a few key points to the very end, so the reader is rather surprised at the outcome! But overall, the book has a few overarching themes: life and death, redemption and facing your fears. The three main characters (Cate, Henry and Ida) all tackle these in their own way with different results. While they do this, they support each other’s journey. It was pleasing to read about the support offered to Cate through the small rural community, just by being Ida’s grand-niece. She was accepted and later supported by them when her past came to the country. The stark contrast between Ida and Cate’s parents’ treatment of her was uncomfortable to read at times. While Ida gives unconditional love, Cate’s parents are boxed in by societal constraints and a mulish belief that their way is the only right way. Offering Henry and Ida as a foil to that lets the reader know that there isn’t one correct track in life, that you can still ‘make it’ no matter how circuitous your road is.

Overall, the writing comes across as gentle, but Hodgson has a firm grip on the story. Underneath the multilayered characters lies a strong plot that guides the reader through Cate, Henry and Ida’s journeys. It’s sweet, sad but most of all hopeful. I really look forward to reading more of Anthea Hodgson’s work after this confident debut novel.

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