The book begins with seventeen-year-old Anna riding alone on an interstate bus, clutching a suitcase and a picture of skulls. Her reasons for running away are blurry, but as the story unfolds, we uncover the complexity behind her motivation. Anna’s expectations of a quaint farmhouse and loving grandparents are immediately shattered by the stench of mouse-shit and the tension of unspoken words. Anna’s initial urge to return home is overridden by emotional manipulation, and a hidden agenda… or two.
We meet Anna’s mother, Cathy, via an interwoven second narrative, which is rich in 90’s nostalgia, and evocative of a time paradoxically simpler and more complicated than today’s world. Through the lens of Cathy’s past context we discover disturbing truths connecting the lives of local families. By shutting Cathy out, Anna unwittingly becomes enmeshed in the remnants of her mother’s haunted history.
The quintessentially teenage experiences of being trapped between polarities (child and adult, past and future, expectation and reality) are thematically mirrored in the imagery and mystery of Bromley Cairn, a semi-abandoned farmhouse whose Australian gothic charm makes it feel more like a character than a building. Simultaneously grand and decrepit, Bromley Cairn welcomes Anna (and her memento mori) into its foreboding sanctuary as both a separation from – and a connection with – her family.
As timelines converge and dots connect, Nieman’s masterful pacing highlights the importance of truth telling and empathy, whilst the narrative structure reminds us that individuals, like society, will never find resolution by clinging to a single perspective.
Nieman’s storytelling shifts seamlessly between timelines and viewpoints, and her nuanced prose paints a compassionate portrait of human experience. Standout characters, Leonie and Basil, breathe warmth and humour into an otherwise bleak landscape, in which the figurative invisibility spells cast by various characters over their darkest days are echoed in the history of the small Australian town Anna finds herself connecting with.
Where We Begin could be read as an account of losing oneself to find oneself, or of examining the past to understand the present, but really, it’s a tale of contrast, demonstrating that polarities are two sides of the same coin, and that legacies live in the gaps between cause and effect. Themes of teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, alcoholism, post traumatic stress, and racism are explored both subtly and overtly, drawing attention to prejudice and privilege without falling prey to their perpetuation.
Nieman’s layered storytelling lulled me into believing I knew where the story was headed, but – like Anna – my expectations were subverted. It was a subtle reminder of how blinded by subjectivity we humans tend to be.
4 stars ★★★★
Where We Begin by Christie Nieman
Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia
Categories: Young Adult Fiction, Contemporary Australian
Release Date: 25 August 2020