Review - A Charm of Powerful Trouble

***Warning: spoilers ahead!***

Apologies for not publishing a book review in June! I’ve been busy working on other projects, which I’m super excited about. More details to come!

This month, I’m going to explore a bewitching story by one of my all-time favourite Australian YA authors. Her name is Joanne Horniman, she hails from northern New South Wales, near where I grew up - and she’s amazing. You might know her as the author of the 2010 lesbian love story, About a Girl, which was shortlisted for YA Book of the Year – 2011 by the CBCA. Did I mention she’s amazing?!

Anyway, for the purposes of this review, I’m focusing on one of Horniman’s earlier and lesser-known works called A Charm of Powerful Trouble. Published in 2002 by Allen & Unwin, this contemporary realist novel was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards in 2003.

From the very first sentence, A Charm of Powerful Trouble draws you into a darkly beautiful world of sisterly love, secret desires and the unravelling of family ties. It’s told from the perspective of Laura, a rebellious and rather feisty young woman, who recounts the story of her childhood in Mullumbimby, northern New South Wales.

Across fourteen chapters, the novel flows back and forth in time. Laura interweaves her mother Emma’s story with her own, and we learn that Emma suffered immeasurable loss in her youth. In the present day, Emma's pain seeps into the lives of her children, whom she loves desperately. In Laura’s words, “She loved us all too much. It was her weak point, her tender vulnerability."

Emma must endure her deepest pain yet when Claudio – her partner and Laura and Chloe’s father (not Lizzie’s) – has an affair and moves in with another woman. In the aftermath, Emma (who is an artist) obsessively sculpts a "Leather Woman” out of clay. The Leather Woman is beautiful at first, but as she withers and crumbles, so too does Emma, her creator's, spirit. To Laura, though, the Leather Woman continues to represent youthful possibility.

"There was so much possibility in those arched feet, poised as if to leap into the world, such elasticity and power in those muscled legs." - Laura

Magic is ever-present in Laura and her big sister Lizzie’s world. The girls are close in age and have such an intense bond that, as a young child, Laura believes they are a single entity: “Lizzie-Laura” or “Laura-Lizzie”. For many years, the girls lead carefree lives, roaming the bush on their property in the hills, sharing secret stories and revelling in lazy summer days.  

Laura’s worship of her older sister shapes her entire existence – but as the girls grow older, Lizzie begins to reject Laura’s attention. Hurt by Lizzie's aloofness, Laura looks elsewhere for someone to play and dream with. When she starts high school, Laura invites her new friend Alice over and, in a moment of undisguised desire, kisses her on the muddy banks of the river. Laura even goes so far as to bite Alice's lip and draw blood! Whoa.  

This fierce, almost violent kiss is the start of Laura’s sexual awakening. She realises that she is attracted to girls and has always known this on some level. Even more significantly, Laura recognises that her identity is distinct and separate from Lizzie’s, and that their bond will never be as it was.

“The summer when I was seventeen, I was so full of undifferentiated sensuality that the world was a great glowing golden fruit around me.” – Laura

By the time Laura is seventeen, she yearns for a deeper romantic connection with a girl. At the Byron Bay lighthouse, Laura stumbles upon a tourist named Catherine. Once again, Laura lures a girl into her forest kindgom, inviting Catherine home for the day. They meander through the forest and kiss amidst tangled vines, possibly having sex (it's implied).

Interestingly, Laura never describes herself as lesbian, gay or bi; she just “likes girls”. The novel doesn’t seem to fit the coming-out story box either, as Laura’s sexuality isn’t the core theme. Rather, A Charm of Powerful Trouble is a story about the deep and abiding love between sisters, mothers and aunts: Emma’s love for her sister who died, for her eccentric great-aunt, for her daughters; Laura’s love for Lizzie and Chloe; and Chloe’s love for their sort-of-step-sister, Paris.

Throughout the novel, each character’s emotions and hidden yearnings are described with such vividness that their lives feel intensely real. At the same time, questions remain unanswered. What happened to Laura’s grandfather, the botanist, who disappeared? What motivated Claudio, Laura’s father, to have an affair? Why did Lizzie visit the sinister “goblin man” every week? Why does Laura continue to fixate on Catherine, several years after their encounter? 

As always, Horniman’s writing style is evocative and sensual, from the secrets that “fluttered with the tiny bats that lived under the eaves”, to the menstrual blood butterfly Laura observes on her thighs: “A symmetrical pair of wings, like an ink blot of folded paper.” With delicate mastery, Horniman taps into the mysterious feminine psyche and bodily sensations – blood, grit, tears, sex and all. For anyone who believes in earthy femininity, the bonds of sisterhood and just a little bit of magic, A Charm of Powerful Trouble is an absolute must-read!