Book review: My Heart is a Little Wild Thing, Nigel Featherstone

This tender story of family and relationships is also a coming-out tale that sees the protagonist wresting control of his own life.

Nigel Featherstone’s My Heart is a Little Wild Thing is a devastatingly emotional but ultimately hopeful exploration of love, family and place. Driven to breaking point by his suffocatingly dependent relationship with his ageing mother, Patrick responds with a single, foiled, act of violence. In an attempt to deal with the complexity of his situation, and his own emotions, he flees to the old farm near the Snowy Mountains where he spent many treasured family holidays as a child.

Alone, Patrick reflects on his adolescence, young adulthood and how his life came to be as it is now. Coming of age during the height of the AIDS crisis, Patrick’s fear and repression meant that he never embraced or acted on his love for other boys and men, even as an adult. However, isolated on the farm where he spent his childhoods, he finally experiences intimacy in a short, but intense romance with Lewis, a mysterious musician who must soon return to Dublin. In the intervening years, Patrick’s life becomes even more tightly intertwined with his mother’s, as he cares for her while her health declines. He occasionally returns to the farm for a brief reprieve, yearning for the love he experienced with Lewis.

Following Patrick’s life from childhood to middle age, My Heart is a Little Wild Thing considers family ties and what it takes to break free, and finally take charge of your own path. Featherstone’s depiction of Patrick’s loneliness and sense of disconnect with the world around him is heartrending. However, as he finally begins to prioritise his own happiness, Patrick notices the richness of the world around him – in food, nature and his relationships. This detail is interspersed among contemplative flashbacks of his youth, and his fraught relationship with his family. These reflections frequently take a melancholic, yearning tone, imbuing the novel with a pervasive sense of loss. 

Coupled with the guilt Patrick feels about his frustration with his ageing mother, My Heart is a Little Wild Thing has the potential to be overwhelmed by negativity, but Featherstone’s attention to detail, and Patrick’s ultimately hopeful trajectory add a sense of optimism.

The natural world takes centre stage, with Jimenbuen, the location of the farm, playing a role almost akin to that of a character. Patrick is transformed by his experiences in Jimbuen with Lewis, but the land itself – its isolation and wilderness – also provides a place of safety and freedom from the guilt and frustration Patrick experiences stemming from his difficult relationship with his mother. Every location is rendered in precise, attentive detail: the barn in Jimenbuen, the streets of Sydney and the sleepy country town where Patrick lives. 

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While Patrick’s bond with his mother becomes increasingly strained, his love for Lewis remains a constant point of solace and hope. While he feels alienated from romance and relationships through his loneliness and lack of experience, queer love itself is never presented as alien. On the contrary, Patrick’s love for Lewis is the one thing that feels ‘right’ in his life. Lewis and nature are intertwined in Patrick’s mind, as they meet on the property in Jimenbuen.

Evocative and emotional, My Heart is a Little Wild Thing illustrates the complexity of relationships and freedom. Torn between his love for and frustration with his mother, Patrick grapples with taking control of his life and following his heart. Featherstone interrogates the power of love and the natural world in Patrick’s life, crafting a compelling and moving read.

My Heart is a Little Wild Thing by Nigel Featherstone
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150135
Format: Paperback 
Pages: 288 pp
Publication Date: May 2022
RRP: $32.99

Elena Perse is a Master of Professional Writing and Publishing student and book lover. Her work has been published by Pelican Magazine, Westerly Magazine and FRINGEWORLD.