Kim Westwood and the implacable Other

A review of The Courier’s New Bicycle

Kim Westwood’s passion for the repressed, both animal and human, provides her second novel, The Courier’s New Bicycle, with its raison d’étre and much of its energy. She champions the ‘other’ – those groups who have historically been voiceless or politically powerless. Her characters, both human and animal (especially a very cute, fluorescent purple cat, Nitro) each stand as testament to the value of the ‘different’ – and in the world ruled by the fundamentalist Nation First party (no great leap to see a blend of One Nation and Australia First in that name), that means just about everybody who’s not heterosexual and religious.

In a world where infertility is the norm, Sal operates as a courier for the enigmatic Gail, dispensing ethically derived but illegal hormone therapies to the many women desperate to have a child. But someone is undermining the Cute ‘n’ Cuddly brand with hormones drained cruelly from animal farms and Sal must find out who it is before her employer is put out of business. Sal is also an activist for a group called Animal Protection Vigilantes and, in the most powerful scene in the novel, frees a string of horses from one such hormone farm. Here, Westwood shines, describing the suffering of animals reduced to hormone production factories with such visceral power some readers might need to take a break.

Kim Westwood’s novel is a slick and assured read. Westwood’s own term for her prose – poetic apocalyptic – is apt. The narrative dashes from place to place through prose dotted with deft descriptions and passages of genuine beauty. In a novel part mystery, part romance, but ultimately a search for family, for belonging and acceptance, Westwood’s ‘gender trangressive’ hero/ine cycles through a shadowy, post-pandemic Melbourne full of misfits and pseudo-criminals. The well-drawn supporting cast assists Sal but, more importantly, each attests to the beauty of the individual in its many, varied forms. Post-apocalyptic fiction can be a strange beast. While it often appears, on the surface, to constitute a warning against violence caused by unrestricted technological advancement, (nuclear, machine/computer or biological advances being the popular favourites) the protagonist/s all too often solve their problems with the same violence (Mad Max, Terminator, The Omega Man etc.). Thus the warning goes unheeded – we must always use violence to solve our problems being the underlying message. Thankfully, Westwood avoids this, positing a new future wherein Sal and her friends solve their problems (mostly) through dialogue and ingenuity. This brings a warmth to the narrative. A sense of caring and community invests Sal’s close-knit band, creating a world in which conflict can be resolved rather than perpetuated.

With one important exception.

In a novel that passionately champions freedom, that gives these fringe-dwellers a voice, Westwood perpetuates the concept of the silent, implacable ‘other’. In The Courier’s New Bicycle, this silent, unheard-from and unexplored group are the majority of citizens who have accepted the new ultra-conservative and religious paradigm. They are the new Communists, Muslim Fundamentalists – insert favoured enemy here (North Koreans, Iranians…) A faceless conglomerate, rather than a collection of individuals. They are the easy enemy to hate. They’re the bad guys. The reader never gets to talk to them. We encounter a few, but we do so always in a situation of conflict. We do not see inside their houses or meet their parents or read their books. It’s still the same coin, with ‘them’ and ‘us’ on opposite sides, never the twain to meet. Westwood just flips it over.

In one passage of conversation with this enemy, Sal states, worryingly, “I have no idea what page you’re on… but I doubt it’ll ever be the same page as me.” But if we are to avoid the sort of future Westwood and other post-apocalyptic writers imagine, we must move beyond the concept of the unknowable ‘other’. We don’t have to like what these ‘others’ are doing, we don’t even have to sit by and let them do it – as long as our opposition allows them the rights we ask for ourselves – but we must understand who they are and why they’re doing what they do. We can’t do that unless we meet them and talk to them. The beauty of any narrative form is it has the capability to allow us to cross the boundaries of nationality and language, as well as those we proscribe about ourselves. To sit in the home of a Taliban fighter or share a drink with a lesbian or have a chat to a battery chicken farmer. Our narratives must break down the barriers of communication, not reinforce them.

This is a small criticism, however, of an otherwise strong book, full of interesting swerves of prose and plot. The Courier’s New Bicycle will reinforce the reputation Westwood established with her Aurealis award-winning short story, ‘The Oracle’ and her first novel, The Daughters of Moab. She joins a growing and increasingly impressive list of Australian speculative fiction authors exploring new narrative forms combining the excitement of new worlds with strong humanist themes born of prose with genuine literary merit. Buy it, read it, enjoy it, just remember, as you wheel through our possible future with Sal, everyone is worth getting to know – even religious fundamentalists.

Peter Hickman is a Melbourne writer and editor and was a judge for the 2011 Aurealis Awards.

Peter Hickman

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