The award-winning Garry Disher has written a very disturbing novel, set in the early years of the twentieth century in Victoria. That a family could live like this at that time in this place is backed up by Disher’s Master’s degree in Australian history, but it is confronting to read about it in such spare, compelling prose. The horrid figure at the centre of the story is a scrap man, who travels in his wagon, buying and selling along the way. At one stop, he buys a small girl, and takes her along with Wife, and Big Girl, to live in his pots and pan wagon. “Names had no currency in the scrap man’s family”, so the little girl became You. All You wanted to do was to escape, that is until Big Girl gave birth to a tiny daughter, whom You secretly named Hazel. Her love for this baby kept her living in the wagon, and working at the scrap man’s bidding. Fagin-like, he had her stealing, pick-pocketing and inventing stories to scrounge food from unsuspecting housewives. Life became even more stressful when the scrap man began sexually abusing You, when she was little more than a teenager. She was now desperate to escape, even hoping that the war of 1914-1918 might somehow scoop up her abuser. However something else did. At last she and Hazel could make a life together.
Illiterate, poor, abused, unloved and alone, You (calling herself in her mind, Lily) may at last bloom. This was a difficult novel to read, but once begun, it is impossible to stop turning those pages, for the reader must know that Lily could escape this terrible life. Apart from its horror of a way of life, it seemed to this reviewer that You was a little young to be doing what she did when in the clutches of the scrap man even managing the horse and the wagon was a herculean task for a small girl. HER is compelling, but be warned, don’t begin to read it if you do not wish to be shocked at what you find could occur in this ‘lucky country’ a hundred years ago.
HER by GARRY DISHER PUBLISHED by HACHETTE for a recommended $29.99