The Courier’s New Bicycle delivers a worthy message

This is the fourth book I’m reading as part of my list of 10 for the Australian Women Writers 2012 National Year of Reading Challenge

AWWNYRC#4: The Courier’s New Bicycle

By Kim Westwood
HarperVoyager, 2011, ISBN: 978 0 7322 8988 1

couriers new bicycle by kim westwood

WHAT a fascinating picture Kim Westwood paints of dystopian Melbourne, right from the striking Darren Holt-designed cover. Australia has been ravaged by a flu vaccination gone wrong – I can hear the shouts of told you so from the anti-vac lobby from here – with the result that fertility levels have fallen through the floor. The religious right has ascended to an almost Orwellian command of the government and the streets, patrolling morality with a puritanical fervour that would make the Rev Nile dance the snoopy dance. Hormones are a hot property in a society where reproduction is a struggle.

Our journey into this well-rendered terrain is through the eyes of Salisbury Forth, a bicycle courier whose life has been characterised by a fight for acceptance of her transgender status. She identifies as androgynous, meaning even her family shun her. Sal (the story is told in first person, so eliminating annoying pronoun conflicts) found a measure of freedom inside the underground community of the inner city, ‘pedalling’ hormone and liberating factory animals; it’s only a matter of time, of course, till the wheels come off.

Intrigue on an almost cyberpunk level ensues as bad drugs are sold, corporate interests clash, desires stoke the belief that the ends justify the means.
Issues of sexuality and identity, and the prejudice levelled against the perceived ‘other’ by the ‘moral majority’, are key issues, and Westwood puts us firmly in the saddle.

The story is narratively more straightforward and the prose more accessible than in her previous, debut title, The Daughters of Moab, a post-apocayptic Australian tale which likewise evoked a most believable world.

australian women writers challenge 2012It’s refreshing that in CNB there are no action heroes; while the world dips into science fiction concepts rooted firmly in the here and now – glow-in-the-dark pets, anyone? say no to battery farming? – the characters are uniformly of the average human variety. They get tired, they make mistakes, they hurt.

There were two minor speed bumps in my reading of the novel, and both probably reflect more on my reading habits than Westwood’s skill and style.

the first was a preponderance of info dumps filling in details about the back story, particularly early on as the stage was being set. There’s a certain level that fits the noir tradition that this story draws on so well, but there’s also a limit to just how much is needed at any one time without interfering with the story, or indeed, interrupting conversations.

The second, equally minor, annoyance was the Salisbury ‘voice’. For a young person who left home at 16, has limited formal education and lives an unsettled life, Sal’s vocabulary is extraordinarily wide and her knowledge of art likewise remarkable. Unfairly assumptive and prejudicial? Perhaps.

These quibbles can’t diminish the impact of Westwood’s world and the gender and social issues she explores. Atmospheric, considered, with likeable characters in a fascinating world: bravo.

Previous Challenge reviews:

  • The Road, by Catherine Jinks, horror.
  • The Shattered City, by Tansy Rayner Roberts, fantasy.
  • Frantic, by Katherine Howell, crime.
  • 17 thoughts on “The Courier’s New Bicycle delivers a worthy message

    1. I read an interesting interview with Shirley Hazzard recently where she complained that people criticised her teenaged protagonists for being too widely-read & unbelievably mature + intelligent. Her reply was, ‘I set my book in the fifties, back then ALL of us were widely-read, mature & intelligent.’

      😉 Which is somewhat of a white-middle-class response, but still fun. Maybe after the apocalypse we’ll all quit letting TV sap our brains & start reading dictionaries for fun. Like we used to. In the fifties. ;p

    2. It’s a hard one, and I actually found myself calling myself elitist, but I just needed a bigger bone to buy it. At least the voice was consistent and likeable, and I’d guess I’m in the minority with that particular complaint. It’s definitely a yarn worth reading!

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    6. Nice review – looking forward to this book! Also, I don’t think that a wide vocabularly would be unreasonable – there are other ways of learning (mind you, I’m commenting having not read the book, so we shall see…)

    7. I’m pretty sure it’s just a Jason thing; no one else I’ve bumped into has had an issue with it. And it’s SUCH a good book — yay the Aurealis and Ditmar wins!

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