Review - Untidy Towns

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

Untidy Towns by Kate O’Donnell is wickedly funny and touching tale of finding yourself in unexpected places – literally so, as seventeen-year-old Adelaide (Addie) flees her boarding school in Melbourne to return to her hometown of Emyvale, in rural Victoria.

Published in 2017 by University of Queensland Press, Untidy Towns is O’Donnell’s debut novel. Slow-paced and observant, it reflects on life’s simple pleasures and in-between moments, like curling up with a new book, cycling in the sun and the squirmy thrill of falling in love for the first time.

Told in month-by-month segments, the novel opens with Addie’s cathartic train journey from Melbourne back to Emyvale. Her escape isn’t driven by a particular event, but a cumulative, creeping exhaustion. Addie is tired of city life, of school and its academic pressures, and of supercilious rich kids (with the exception of Mia, her vivacious friend).

Like so many teens, Addie yearns for freedom, solace and the space to be herself. Sleepy Emyvale is the perfect place to ponder and dream – yet the transition is far from easy. Addie’s mother and grandparents are supportive, but they don’t want to see her talents wasted. And after years of distancing herself from childhood friends, Addie is awkward in her interactions with Jenny, her ex-best friend, and Jarrod, the classic boy-next-door with a dark past. (Addie falls for him, naturally!)

I couldn’t help but adore Addie’s character. She’s the kind of person you might meet at an art gallery or museum, scrutinising a display that others have overlooked. She doesn’t always make wise decisions, but she glimpses beauty in imperfection – from the dusty artefacts at Emyvale Historical Society, where she gets a part-time job – to the peeling paint and cracked walls of Miss Nell’s old house in town.  

I love that Addie is smart and bookish, but also messy and self-destructive. Her story is an ideal lens to examine the (considerable) stresses of Year 12 and the HSC exams. An important slice of wisdom is shared: that even the best and brightest can fall apart during times of stress. Addie’s life crisis is a case-in-point. She makes mistakes, she learns from them and grows a little wiser, with the help of characters from classic literature and her three-year-old sister’s sparkling joy.

“And with the weight of classic Australian literature hanging from my wrist, I let myself in the front door and there was music playing and the smell of freshly baked bread in the air.” - Addie

Family and belonging are important themes in the novel. Addie has a close bond with her mum, grandparents and little sister, Clover. Returning to an earthy, simple existence with her mum and Clover is comforting and grounding for Addie, who has been adrift for so long. There are some lovely descriptions of domestic life and the gentle, loving grace of mother-daughter relationships.

It’s also worth mentioning the relationship that develops between Mia and Jenny, Addie’s friends from different worlds. The budding romance between the two girls is unexpected and so, so sweet. Both girls’ sexualities are presented as a non-issue. (I read Mia as a bisexual character, but it’s not explicitly stated.) An amusing conversation takes place between Addie and Mia, when Addie discovers that Jenny and Mia kissed at a party. Addie isn’t concerned that Jenny “seems to like kissing ladies”, but that Jenny might be heartbroken when Mia returns to Melbourne.

“It’s the country! I don’t even think lesbians are invented here.” - Addie

Overall, Untidy Towns is a heartwarming exploration of what happens when you take risks, defy convention and chase your dreams. Written with candid humour, Addie’s dreamy (and sometimes mistaken) observations about Emyvale folk and small-town life made me laugh out loud. I also felt inspired to read the books on Addie’s ‘Favourite books in the world’ and ‘Some books I want to read’ lists, featured at the back of the novel – a delightful addition!