Sometimes there are characters that are just so complex and so nuanced, that capturing them on a page can be overwhelming. This can be even more difficult when those characters also happen to be real-world historical figures. In Half Wild, author Pip Smith re-examines the life of Eugenia Falleni – a trans man from New Zealand, charged with the death of his wife, Annie Birkett.
A key challenge Smith faces in this novel is describing the experience of a trans person within an unsympathetic world. Despite the character’s transition to Harry Crawford, they are forced (after an arrest for murder and a very public exposure by the media) to reassume their previous identity of Eugenia Falleni. They are described in papers as a ‘man-woman’, and treated with suspicion by judge and jury alike. While it is difficult as a modern reader to stomach, Half Wild is a reminder of what Sydney was like at the turn of the 20th Century: brutal, dirty and terrifying.
The story of Falleni has been well-documented – it is not the suspense, but the delivery which keeps Half Wild pushing forward. Smith works closely with historical sources, and details the trial almost exclusively through contemporary newspaper coverage and transcripts. This is at times jarring, as the novel jumps from one source to another, and reflects how we still experience and consume sensational murder trials today. During this section, Smith shifts the point-of-view to first person plural. She writes,
“We could feel the skin beneath our collars. How tender it was, how soft. For a second, we thought we could feel the scratch of a rope being slipped around our necks”.
This is a genius effect, as the reader becomes just the same as the curious and gruesome onlookers, watching as Falleni is convicted of murder and sentenced to death.
The narration jumps around, with each character at times describing the action. While this technique does extend the disjointed effect, it also creates a lack of focus and at times undermines the dramatic irony of the story.
One of the most successful elements of Half Wild is how Smith maintains the mystery around what actually happened to Annie Birkett. She elegantly casts doubt over Falleni’s testimony, and calls into question the evidence in the case. Is Falleni a master-mind, switching identities for protection? Or was the trial blinded by sensationalism and destined to failure? Who knows?
Centine Wilbello: inner blessed in the Inner West.