Twisted Clay by Frank Walford.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars.
So here’s a book that was written by a future pillar of the Katoomba community who, aside from writing, spent time as a buffalo hunter, crocodile shooter, mule packer and prospector. He was a boxer and dab hand with a knife, and shared the same bucolic Blue Mountains literary salon as Eleanor Dark.
Naturally, it’s a book about a murderous teenage lesbian who receives communiques from her dead father – letting her know his brains are falling out from where she hit him with an axe in retribution for wanting to try and cure her with hormone therapy, so can she please come and dig him up – who ends up in Sydney committing further murders. Written in 1933, no less. And promptly banned for thirty years.
To call this shit wild is certainly an understatement.
Of course, the novel isn’t just lurid murders and steamy dreams of well-endowed Roman women in armour, though there are plenty of those bits. It’s a surprisingly modern-feeling work, attempting to plumb the psychology of Jean, a bloodthirsty Lolita. True, it’s not going to have the most subtle touch – much is made of the “stain” of her mother’s madness – but for the time, there’s a lot of effort gone to portray the machinations of the lead character’s mind.
There’s touches of The Well Of Loneliness in the work that show a bit of Walford’s tenderness towards his creation and her struggle to fit in, which was unexpected. There’s some all-too-expected sexism in here, but overall the book holds Jean up as a powerful anti-hero, operating on her terms against the men who would control or entrap her.
Is it deep? Well, it’s deeper than I’d expected from the blurb, especially considering that it’s really a gothic novel surrounded by gum trees. There’s a bunch of standard dark-and-stormy tropes, which is pretty fitting if you’ve ever seen a misty evening in Katoomba. Dream-states and imprisonment make an appearance. It’s a delightful adaptation of an old formula.
I don’t want to spoil the story, but there’s twists and turns and hacks and slashes aplenty. Jean smart-arses her way through trouble (of her own creation and otherwise) with an aplomb that is endearing, except for the fact that she’s apparently sociopathic. It’s a story you shouldn’t like, but damnit, it’s entertaining.
Honestly, any book that was met with reviews headlined “Unsavoury” upon publication is probably worth a look for the rubbernecking value at least. Thankfully, Twisted Clay is more than just a flash in the pan – it’s a long-lost oddity, back in print, that should have a larger audience than it has. Let’s face it, something as bugfuck strange as this doesn’t come along all that often.
(While we’re at it, can Justin Kurzel direct an adaptation of this? It would be great.)