I read A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce won the 2022 The Australia Vogel Literary Award, which is awarded annually to an Australian author aged under 35 for their unpublished manuscript.
The narrator of this story was Matilda, a young woman who had been emotionally manipulated since her childhood by her parents and friends. The story didn’t come right out and say if Matilda had autism, but it seemed likely as she was unable to ‘read’ other people and was very suggestible.
Matilda grew up in Canberra as an only child until her early teenage years, when her mother convinced her father they should foster Sem, a teenage boy. When Matilda’s parents separated several years later, Sem was returned to the foster care system and Matilda and her mother moved to Melbourne.
Eventually Matilda reunited with Sem in Melbourne along with Celeste, Sem’s on and off again girlfriend who Matilda already knew from their shared childhood in Canberra. Soon after, Matilda and Celeste left the city to live in a holiday shack near Eden on the south coast of NSW, while Sem came and went from their lives. One night when Matilda had far too much to drink, Sem disappeared leaving Matilda unable to remember what had transpired but being blamed for his disappearance.
I didn’t particularly care for any of the characters and thought the story would have been stronger had I felt more attached to Matilda or Sem. Celeste was overtly manipulative which made her easy to dislike, as was Matilda’s mother, who was so busy discovering herself as a middle-aged hippie that she rented out Matilda’s bedroom, leaving her daughter sleeping on the couch in their share-house.
The ending was left open which I found frustrating. I would have preferred to learn if Matilda was a victim of her family and friends or if she had been an unreliable narrator who had manipulated the reader. I tend to think she was the former.
I liked the settings, which included suburban Canberra, sweltering hot during summer and icy in winter. Matilda’s home in Melbourne was inner-city shared housing, while her and Celeste’s beach shack in Eden where the bush met the sea was lovely. I read the story over a single afternoon and thought that the writing was good, despite my lack of connection to the characters.
My purchase of A Place Near Eden by Nell Pierce goes towards fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to buy a book by an Australian author during each month of 2022 (September).