The Untold

( 3 )

Overview

“[A] page turner…Jessie, the heroine of this tale set in 1920s Australia, sets her own compass…The chase will leave you breathless.”—Good Housekeeping

It is 1921. In a mountain-locked valley, amid squalls of driving rain, Jessie is on the run.

Born wild and brave, by twenty-six she has already lived life as a circus rider, a horse and cattle rustler, and a convict. Yet on this fateful night she is just a woman...

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The Untold

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Overview

“[A] page turner…Jessie, the heroine of this tale set in 1920s Australia, sets her own compass…The chase will leave you breathless.”—Good Housekeeping

It is 1921. In a mountain-locked valley, amid squalls of driving rain, Jessie is on the run.

Born wild and brave, by twenty-six she has already lived life as a circus rider, a horse and cattle rustler, and a convict. Yet on this fateful night she is just a woman wanting to survive—though there is barely any life left in her.

She mounts her horse and points it toward the highest mountain in sight. Soon bands of men will crash through the bushland, desperate to claim the reward on her head. And in their wake will be two more men—one her lover, the other the law—each uncertain whether to save her or themselves.

But as it has always been for Jessie, it is death, not a man, who is her closest pursuer and companion. And while all odds are stacked against her, there is one who will never give up on her….

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
03/17/2014
Broadly based on the life of Australian “wild woman” Jessie Hickman, Collins’s debut novel ranges widely over the Australian frontier—and into one woman’s dark and damaged heart. It’s 1921, and Jessie’s past may finally be catching up with her: having just given birth to a premature baby and killed her abusive husband, the young horse rustler, former circus performer, and ex-convict is impelled toward distant mountains, where she hopes to find safety, and possibly her lover. That lover, a black man named Jack Brown, has, however, developed an uneasy partnership with a police sergeant who may have his own history with Jessie. The harshness of the human and natural environment, as well as the prevalence of death in the bleak outback setting, is underscored by the narrator; Jessie’s story is told by her dead child, speaking from her grave. “The earth buckles with the stories it holds of all those who have cried and all those who have croaked,” remarks the narrator, and, indeed, Collins’s poetic language and salty dialogue tell the story of a woman whose life is inextricable from the bleak landscape she not only traverses but also inhabits. (May)
Library Journal
★ 04/01/2014
Collins's gripping debut novel is based on a legendary wild woman who roamed a rugged valley in 1920s Australia. On the run after murdering her abusive husband, Fitz, 26-year-old Jessie delivers her baby in the woods and, without waiting for death to claim her frail infant, buries her and continues her flight. From the grave, the baby becomes the narrator of her mother's story. After serving two years for horse stealing, Jessie had gone to work as a horse wrangler for Fitzgerald Henry. He brutally mistreats her, so she defies him in the only way she can. Once Jessie is on the run, her ally and lover, Jack Brown, Fitz's aboriginal stockman, sees it as a sign that she is alive and well when a rancher reports 100 head of cattle missing. Jack seeks help from an unreliable local policeman, and together they set off to find Jessie before an outlaw band can get to her for the reward. VERDICT A fast-paced, heart-wrenching story that never loses speed, this extraordinary first novel is not to be missed. [See Prepub Alert, 11/22/13.]—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Palisade, CO
Kirkus Reviews
2014-04-17
The dead have tales to tell, if only we could hear them. Debut novelist Collins bases her story on the legendary Australian outlaw Jessie Hickman. Born to a coldhearted mother and a loving father who died too soon, Jessie finds herself sold to a traveling circus at age 12. After her closest friend and fellow tightrope walker takes a terrible fall, she leaves the circus for a career in horse rustling, which lands her in prison; eventually, she's given a choice between languishing in jail or breaking horses for Fitz Henry. Of course, in 1917, a female convict is at the mercy of her employer, who is also her legal guardian, and Fitz quickly blackmails her into a brutal marriage. Pregnancy gives Jessie the courage to violently defy her husband, but the battle costs her the baby, as well. On the lam, she's pursued by men seeking rewards and legal retribution. Two of her pursuers—Jack Brown, Fitz's former drover, and Barlow, the new police officer who's already fighting some demons of his own—appear like Furies, seeking vindication, vengeance and something more. Curiously, the novel is narrated by Jessie's dead child. This choice certainly emphasizes the land, which becomes a character in its own right, binding its inhabitants together in shared tribulations, challenging Jessie, Jack and Barlow at every turn. Too often, though, the narrative premise seems forced, unnecessarily drawing attention to the fantastic ability of the undead to know a past it never lived. Prefacing the tale with a brief account of one of Harry Houdini's escapes also seems strained; Jessie's horse may be named for the magician, but the allusion rather heavy-handedly foreshadows Jessie's fate.Collins richly evokes a heartbreaking emotional terrain, setting it against the sparse, brutal landscape of the Australian Outback.
From the Publisher
“This extraordinary novel—propelled by the dark, rich talents of a truly brilliant writer—dazzles, staggers, and amazes.”—Elizabeth Gilbert, New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love“A captivating, epic novel that never loses its heart to scope, The Untold is a surreal saga set in a rugged, unforgiving landscape. Courtney Collins paints a devastating portrait of long-shot love.”—Patrick deWitt, author of #1 international bestseller The Sisters Brothers (short-listed for The Man Booker Prize)"Collins’s gripping debut novel is based on a legendary wild woman…A fast-paced, heart-wrenching story that never loses speed, this extraordinary first novel is not to be missed.”—Library Journal (starred review)“The dead have tales to tell, if only we could hear them…Collins richly evokes a heartbreaking emotional terrain, setting it against the sparse, brutal landscape of the Australian Outback.”—Kirkus Reviews“Collins’s poetic language and salty dialogue tell the story of a woman whose life is inextricable from the bleak landscape she not only traverses but also inhabits.”—Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780399167096
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/29/2014
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 387,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Courtney Collins grew up in the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, Australia. She completed her first novel, The Untold, in an old postmaster’s cottage on the Goulburn River in regional Victoria. She now lives in a sea-side town in NSW and is working on her second novel.

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Read an Excerpt

If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell? Would it

favor the ones who have knelt upon it, whose fingers have

split turning it over with their hands? Those who, in the

evening, would collapse weeping and bleeding into it as if the dirt

were their mother? Or would it favor those who seek to be far, far

from it, like birds screeching tearless through the sky?

This must be the longing of the dirt, for the ones who are suspended

in flight.

Down here I have come to know two things: birds fall down

and dirt can wait. Eventually, teeth and skin and twists of bone will

all be given up to it. And one day those who seek to be high up and

far from it will find themselves planted like a gnarly root in its

dark, tight soil. Just as I have.

This must be the lesson of the dirt.

Morning of my birth. My mother was digging. Soot-covered 

and bloody. If you could not see her, you would have surely smelt

her in this dark. I was trussed to her in a torn-up sheet. Rain and

wind scoured us from both sides, but she went on digging. Her

heart was in my ear. I pushed my face into the fan of her ribs and

tasted her. She tasted of rust and death.

In the wind, in the squall, I became an encumbrance. She set

me on the ground beside her horse. Cold on my back and wet, I

could see my breath breathe out. Beside me, her horse was sinking

into the mud. I watched him with one eye as he tried to recover his

hooves. I knew if he trod on me he would surely flatten my head

like a plate.

Morning of my birth, there were no stars in the sky. My mother

went on digging. A pile of dirt rose around her until it was just her

arms, her shoulders, her hair, sweeping in and out of the dark while

her horse coughed and whined above me.

When she finally arched herself out of the hole in the ground

she looked like the wrecked figurehead on a ship’s bow. Hopeful as

I was, I thought we might take off again, although I knew there

was no boat or raft to carry us, only Houdini, her spooked horse.

And from where we had come, there was no returning.

She stood above me, her hair willowy strips, the rain as heavy

as stones. Finally, she stooped to pick me up and I felt her hand

beneath my back. She brought me to her chest, kissed my muddied

head. Again, I pushed my face into the bony hollow of her chest

and breathed my mother in.

Morning of my birth, my mother buried me in a hole that

was two feet deep. Strong though she was, she was weak from my

birth, and as she dug, the wind filled the hole with leaves and

the rain collapsed it with mud so all that was left was a wet and

spindly bed.

When the sun inched awkwardly up she lowered me into the

grave. Then, lying prone on the earth, she stroked my head and

sang to me. I had never, in my short life, heard her sing. She sang

to me until the song got caught in her throat. Even as she bawled

and spluttered, her open hand covered my body like the warmest

blanket.

I had an instinct then to take her song and sing it back to her,

and I opened my mouth wide to make a sound, but instead of air

there was only fluid and as I gasped I felt my lungs fold in. In that

first light of morning my body contorted and I saw my own fingers

reaching up to her, desperate things.

She held them and I felt them still and I felt them collapse. And

then she said, Sh, sh, my darling. And then she slit my throat.

I should not have seen the sky turn pink or the day seep in.

I should not have seen my mother’s pale arms sweep out and heap

wet earth upon me or the screeching white birds fan out over her

head.

But I did.

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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION

It is 1921. In a mountain-locked valley, Jessie is on the run.

Born wild and brave, by twenty-six she has already lived life as a circus rider, horse and cattle rustler, and convict. But on this fateful night she is just a woman wanting to survive though there is barely any life left in her.

Two men crash through the bushland, desperate to claim the reward on her head: one her lover, the other the law.

But as it has always been for Jessie, it is death, not a man, who is her closest pursuer and companion. And while all odds are stacked against her, there is one who will never give up on her-her own child, who awaits her.

ABOUT COURTNEY COLLINS

Courtney Collins lives on the Goulburn River in regional Victoria, Australia. The Untold is her first novel, and she is currently at work on her second novel.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • Who is the narrator of The Untold? Do you feel the narrator is reliable or unreliable? Does the novel represent the narrator's experience of Jessie, or Jessie's life as seen (or not seen) by the narrator?
  • What is the author's purpose in beginning the narration with the question "If the dirt could speak, whose story would it tell?"
  • What is the importance of Andrew Barlow's asking Jack Brown, "Are you black enough to be my tracker?"
  • What is the significance of Jack Brown's relationship with Lay Ping and the Seven Sisters?
  • In the "Prelude to Death" section at the beginning of the book, the author writes about Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist. Why did she choose to begin the book this way? Why is it significant that Jesse's horse Houdini shares the name with this world-class stunt performer?
  • What does The Untold say about colonial Australia in terms of racism and sexism? How does the landscape reveal the characters? To what extent is it oppressive and to what extent is it redemptive?
  • Consider the motivation for Andrew Barlow's final actions. Why did he make the decision he made?
  • Discuss the relationship between Andrew Barlow and Jessie. How does it connect with Jessie's relationship with the boy, Joe, Bill, and the other riders in the gang?
  • Think about Jessie's role as an escape artist. In what ways does she reveal herself as one?
  • Why does the author divert the narrative in one section to a man who has been buried for forty years? What is his relationship with the other characters, in particular the old woman and the old man who find Jessie by the river?
  • Consider the following quotation: "That is all I know: death is a magic hall of mirrors and within it there is a door and the door opens both ways." How does The Untold challenge the finite notion of death?
  • What do you make of the ending: "And then, as I felt in my own heart a wish for her freedom, in one single and shimmering note I heard her. She said: I am here"? What do you think this means?
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 3 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2014

    Very good writing

    Loved it

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    Gritty and great!!!!!!

    Excellent. Highly recommend. This is an unusal story. Unique characters, told from an unexpected narrator, and has a fascinating setting. Strong female character but also has several male characters - both heroes and sometime evil as well. Another great book on the NOOK is "The Partisan" by William Jarvis. This also is based on an actual person. It also has strong female characters as well as true evil. Both books deserve A++++++++

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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