Australian Gothic is a style that’s tough to get right and Christie Nieman’s Where We Begin is perhaps the best YA rendition out there.
Gothic literature is that perpetual form which finds itself extending across centuries. Emerging in the late 18th century, it has divided itself into multiple sub-genres such as Romantic Gothic (think the Brontë sisters and Dracula), Modern Gothic (for example, horror films like The Babadook).
Though Australian Gothic is an increasingly rare sub-genre, it’s the particular corner of this centuries-old literary tradition where we find Christie Nieman’s Where We Begin (Pan Macmillan).
Australian Gothic emerged in the late 19th century (100 years after Captain Cook’s invasion) with the first proper Australian serial novel For The Term Of His Natural Life. The Marcus Clarke novel paved the way for Australian Gothic with its particular tropes of feelings of un-settlement and ideas of solitude and desolation. Set amongst a travelling convict ship to New South Wales, it disturbingly explored how the hostility of the natural environment — which removes humanity from civilisation — results in truly unspeakable events (for the 19th century) like homosexuality, cannibalism and all kinds of rape.
Whilst Australian Gothic has evolved since For The Term Of His Natural Life, the main stylistic hallmark that signifies the sub-genre is the way Australian landscapes become inscribed with unspeakable truths: things that have been socially disciplined into silence like female sexuality, haunting facts about Aboriginal treatment or disturbing folklore.
Unfortunately, Australian Gothic at its rawest form seems to be becoming increasingly obscure, and texts that do herald themselves as Australian Gothic usually don’t have those traditional signifiers. Arguments can certainly be made that as Australia becomes more urbanised the genre will become less inclined to explore its eerie surroundings, but that usually fails to recognise why Australian Gothic is distinct enough to become its own sub-genre.
This is where Christie Nieman’s Where We Begin comes into play. The YA novel, set in New South Wales and Victoria, is a truly refreshing take on Australian Gothic.
Where We Begin follows its runaway protagonist, 17-year-old Anna, who has escaped her suburban home in New South Wales to meet her grandparents in Victoria, whom she’s never met. From the get-go, Where We Begin echoes those classics from the genre (particularly Barbara Baynton’s Bush Studies) with Anna’s cautious walk through an unfamiliar landscape to foreshadow the novel’s aura.
Knowingly reflecting her genre’s predecessors, Neiman uses Anna’s narration of her journey to the small country town to encapsulate that encrypted landscape. Anna tells us:
“I watched a doco with dad once…about the way nature will reclaim the built spaces when all the humans are gone: plants using our structures to climb closer to the sun, thrusting their feeling tendrils into all the cracks and pulling the human world apart, brick by brick.”
This description eerily accompanies the failure of the man-made things (particularly her phone, the most divergent thing from nature) in her new environment.
Anna’s unsettling surroundings don’t stop there. When she finally arrives at her grandparents’ home, a plethora of things become apparent. Borrowing from the Gothic emblem of haunted houses, Nieman subverts hers, Bromley Manor, to ensure that the walls are encoded with a secret so profoundly connected to the rancid history of both the family and the town that everywhere Anna turns, her sights are a profound reminder of everything she can’t escape, even if she doesn’t know it yet.
In true Australian Gothic fashion, the town’s Gully becomes the locus for the novel’s biggest unspeakabilities: the great family secret, and the town’s harrowing history. Anna’s discovery of these mirrors Australia’s own deplorable history — especially the Indigenous massacre that actually occurred on the Moorlat Plains area of Central Victoria.
Just as every setting in Where We Begin holds something new to be discovered, Nieman cleverly uses flashbacks to allow her reader to witness the past secrets that plague both Anna and her mother. Delicately intertwined within the present story, the flashbacks create a thrilling rendition of the novel’s slogan: “the past is waiting.” So, when the past and present finally do collide in the novel’s climax, there is a perfect unravelling of all the carefully tied up secrets that kept its characters in the desolate shadows of danger.
Another triumph of Where We Begin is the importance that every character is afforded. Not only is there a diverse representation of nationalities, but every character is also fleshed out enough to allow true appreciation for their motivations and actions. The anxiety Anna feels is palpable, the hurt her mother carries is gut-wrenching and her grandmother’s own horrors are tangible. Every piece of dialogue, action and decision the characters make leaves Nieman’s reader with a truly corporeal understanding of them.
Where We Begin is fearless in its exploration of racism, sexism and colonialism. It’s one of those rare texts that allows the Australian Gothic genre to be rendered so wonderfully that every sensation is felt, no matter how harrowing it may be. As a Young Adult novel, it’s perfect for its audience and can even reach older readers who may be fascinated by horrifyingly real secrets that are latent within this land.
Where We Begin is out now via Pan Macmillan.