Penelope Sell is living the dream. A year ago, the Australian-based author — originally from New Zealand — was just one of the thousands of aspiring authors vying for the attention of the big-time publishers. Now, she’s sitting pretty as a major winner in the Varuna Awards for Manuscript Development, sponsored by the Varuna Writing Centre and HarperCollins Publishers. Her prize? A ten day workshop with top editors from HarperCollins Australia to discuss and develop her first manuscript. Winning does not necessarily equal publication, but Sell got lucky. A Secret Burial was published in July, and with the enthusiastic endorsement and continuing support of HarperCollins, it’s the kind of fairy tale writers would kill to call their own.
Its charmed life notwithstanding, it’s unlikely A Secret Burial will set the world on fire. Sell’s book is an understated coming-of-age tale set in the drought-stricken Australian outback. Though elegantly written, it’s quiet — it creeps along –, while saying little about adolescent ingenuousness that hasn’t already been said by Judy Blume and Alice Hoffman. It rarely breaks out of the A to B to C doldrums.
A Secret Burial is the story of 15-year-old Elise Stringer and her struggle to the drought in rural Australia. Her story begins when her mother is electrocuted attempting to fix a washing machine. She enlists the help of an eremitic neighbor to assist in the woman’s burial, with a firm plan to keep the episode a secret. She figures she’ll get a job and raise her little brother on her own with no one the wiser.
Things don’t quite go as planned, of course. Growing up, Elise soon realizes, is as much about the turning of the clock as it is about circumstance. Dead mother or not, fifteen is still fifteen.
Elise is like any other teenage girl. She’s naive, curious, occasionally belligerent, and fully aware of the steps to be taken in becoming a woman. With her mother gone, Elise must discover her path earlier than expected, but she does so with apparent confidence. She’ll send her brother away if she has to, find herself a job in the city, or just make lemonade. What other choice does she have?
While ostensibly a piece about a girl’s loss of innocence, it often glosses over Elise’s most important moments. Her first sexual experience, for example, runs about a half-page with little insight into what having a farmhand’s hands down her pants means to Elise, while revelations as to her mother’s lamentable past are rushed and, again, scarcely explored. Because of this, it’s hard for the reader to care about Elise, because we simply don’t know her. She wades through the weeks following her mother’s death with an apathetic air; the author never really lets the reader know what’s going on in the girl’s head. The book is excessively descriptive when it doesn’t matter (“. . . between bordering trees it could be glimpsed, the red of roof and the green of tendered plants — small, bright squares amid acres of brown”), and not descriptive enough when it does (“. . . he moved faster inside her then, and she wondered at the act, the experience for her being nothing but a closeness”).
Understanding Elise’s actions, though, seems far from Sell’s main objective. The star of the book appears to be the arid land and the stories it keeps. Elise’s home is the kind of town in which everyone knows everyone, every home and building shadowing the scratched bitumen roads resembles the one beside it, and if you don’t fight your way through the barbed-wire fences of comfort and safety, the opportunity and the desire to explore the big, wide world passes you by. Whether or not it was necessary, though, for Elise’s mother to die in order for her to achieve independence is arguable (especially considering the distinct lack of grief displayed by Elise or her brother), as just what it all means to her is rarely revealed, Elise’s tale is less about experience and emotion than instance and location.
Still, while passages of the book are derivative and often excruciatingly slow, the delicate confidence with which Sell delivers her tale demonstrates extraordinary potential. A Secret Burial is no great masterpiece, but that’s hardly the point. The book represents the dream that a love of words and a drive to tell stories is still worthwhile in the digital age. No doubt Sell had a little luck on her side when it came to getting that story into print, but in a modern publishing environment that might seem to be more about money, marketing and movie rights than storytelling, her book is proof that connections, pizzazz, a cute face, or a chubby wallet are not always fundamental to literary success.