All The Books I Can Read

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Review: Hydra by Adriane Howell

on August 10, 2022

Hydra
Adriane Howell
Transit Lounge Publishing
2022, 256p
Copy courtesy of the publisher/Quikmark Media

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Anja is a young, ambitious antiquarian, passionate for the clean and balanced lines of mid-century furniture. She is intent on classifying objects based on emotional response and when her career goes awry, Anja finds herself adrift. Like a close friend, she confesses her intimacies and rage to us with candour, tenderness, and humour.

Cast out from the world of antiques, she stumbles upon a beachside cottage that the neighbouring naval base is offering for a 100-year lease. The property is derelict, isolated, and surrounded by scrub. Despite of, or because of, its wildness and solitude, Anja uses the last of the inheritance from her mother to lease the property. Yet a presence – human, ghost, other – seemingly inhabits the grounds.

Hydra is a novel of dark suspense and mental disquiet, struck through with black humour. Adriane Howell beguilingly explores notions of moral culpability, revenge, memory, and narrative – all through the female lens of freedom and constraint. She holds us captive to the last page.

This is quite a difficult novel to review.

It’s essentially a story told in two parts – firstly, the story of Anja, an antiquarian who works in Melbourne. Anja is passionate about a classification system for antiques that she devised for her thesis, something that she longs to implement in her professional life and believes she might be able to do so, once she reaches the level of ‘Specialist’. She has a rivalry of sorts with Fran, someone who works in the same office, as to who might reach this first. When Anja makes a decision that torpedoes her career, she finds herself using the last of her inheritance from her mother to purchase a 100 year lease on a remote cottage on the vast grounds of a naval base. The cottage is isolated and has not been used for some time and although it has a spectacular view of the sea, usage of the beach is not included as it belongs to the defence force. Not long after she moves in, Anja notices several disturbing incidents which makes her wonder why this place has been offered up now, and why it has been left alone so long.

Interspersed with this are classified documents from an investigation into some unusual and violent happenings at the naval base that surrounds Anja’s new property some 30+ years ago, some of which have been removed and other information is occasionally redacted.

Anja is a complicated protagonist, at the beginning of the book she is arriving back at work after some time away, during which it’s hinted that something has happened or gone wrong. Her focus is back on work but immediately it seems that Anja is….perhaps struggling a bit mentally. She is hyper focused on things sometimes and doesn’t seem to notice the ‘bigger picture’. She has an intense rivalry with a fellow employee and in her desperation to one up this person, makes a mistake that basically ends her career. Even after this happens, it seems that Anja can’t actually see what she did wrong and seems to feel like she’d do the same thing again every time. She makes impulsive, rash decisions and doesn’t seem to ever take responsibility for anything. After a bit of a rocky start she settles into her new life in the cottage and even manages to find herself a job but she still can’t let go of the past, constantly checking up on her previous work colleague.

I really liked the parts of the story that involved the previous investigation into the naval base. I found them incredibly interesting and quite good at building a sinister vibe in a slow and steady way, the precise nature of the military reports giving you nothing but clinical facts and observations as the investigator proceeds with interviews. Your imagination begins to fill in the gaps, try and work out what is happening by what isn’t being said (and by trying to figure out what was been removed from the report as several items are listed as so). These are complimented by some unusual happenings that Anja notices at the cabin, but how much of this is the product of the isolation and Anja’s frame of mind, is uncertain.

The writing in this is beautiful and so well done. It’s not a long story and it manages to convey so much, especially about Anja without specifically really telling the reader much about her at all. As I mentioned, even the investigative reports are used to maximum effect and the difference between the clinical feel of those and Anja’s slightly frantic thoughts help with creating an atmosphere of foreboding. For me it was all building towards something but I cannot help but feel like the ending was….not quite what I was expecting.

An interesting debut with impressive writing but there were some elements of the story that didn’t really work out for me in the end.

6/10

Book #137 of 2022


One response to “Review: Hydra by Adriane Howell

  1. Tien says:

    Much as I like the revenge component – I’m still left rather unsatisfied…

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