Last November I decided to experiment with blogging about books by taking a single page and writing whatever comes to mind about it. I picked page 75, my age at the time. Sadly, though I did focus on page 75 (or 47 or even 7 in shorter books), I didn’t really keep to the plan but felt obliged to go on about the books in general as well. Now that I’m 76, I’m renewing the experiment.
Hilde Hinton, A Solitary Walk on the Moon (Hachette Australia 2022)
You could describe A Solitary Walk on the Moon as a quirky comedy, but that suggests a particular kind of US movie – and Evelyn, the book’s laundromat-manager protagonist, is more John Wayne than Miranda July, or perhaps Miranda July in a John Wayne role. Like the hero of a classical Western movie, she’s a loner who brings her peculiar set of skills to the aid of the community who come to love her, but among whom she feels she has no abiding place.
Page 76, a little past the one-quarter mark, is relatively uneventful, but in it the characters develop, the plot moves forward and key images recur, all without breaking a sweat.
Evelyn is in the process of building what will turn out to be a patchwork family. Having overheard two young women, laundromat customers, talking about a friend who has disappeared, she has insinuated herself into their confidence, and enlisted the help of a befuddled old man, also a customer, who she has learned is a retired policeman. At the start of this page, she introduces the man to the young women with characteristic awkwardness and a touch of bravado that doesn’t quite work:
‘This is,’ Evelyn said, suddenly realising that she didn’t know his name, ‘our retired policeman.’ Her ta-da finish went unacknowledged.
We understand the lack of acknowledgement to be partly because the young women don’t quite trust Evelyn, and partly because the retired policeman is grubby and vague-looking. By this stage readers have come to understand that though Evelyn is deeply strange – perhaps non-neurotypical, perhaps from a non-mainstream culture, or perhaps dealing with childhood trauma – she is smart and well-intentioned. But we also understand other people’s hesitance around her.
The ex-policeman introduces himself as Phillip, and they head off to the police station. In a characteristic narrative move, they stop on the way for Phillip to play the love-me, love-me-not ritual with a daisy. He presents Evelyn with the stem, ‘topped by a clearly embarrassed pistil and a sad, solitary petal which flapped about in the evening breeze’. This moment reminds us that Phillip is probably in early stages of dementia, but it’s also a feature of the novel’s style: at any moment there’s likely to be a mild departure from a straightforward narrative. All the characters, it seems, are at least slightly odd, or at least wonderfully naive.
They arrive at the police station:
‘Don’t ring the bell,’ he said authoritatively when Evelyn went to ding the bell.
‘How will they know we’re here?’ she asked. The old man pointed at the mirror behind the counter and sat down on one of the plastic moulded chairs. They were all bolted together, and Evelyn wondered why. No one in their right mind would steal one. Phillip crossed his legs and clasped his hands behind his head. The two girls sat either side of him. Evelyn was not in the mood for sitting and wandered around the waiting room looking at the faded posters that looked like they’d been there for years. There was a chart of missing persons, and Evelyn vaguely remembered the tall cross-eyed man who had gone missing while bushwalking a few years back. They had never found him, as far as she knew.
This isn’t one of Evelyn’s most eccentric moments, but you can see her restless mind at work, wondering about the chairs, noticing the details of a missing man. We half expect her to go in search of him (she doesn’t). Hilde Hinton draws us into Evelyn’s world, so that we too come to notice the odd things that stand out for her, and find ourselves seeing the world with fresh eyes – not those of a child, but fresh all the same.
You can see the author’s mind playfully at work here too: is Phillip’s counter-intuitive advice about ringing the bell sensible, or are we being played with? Either way, it’s characteristic of this book that a man who when we first saw him was unable to find his own way home has practical wisdom to offer when he’s on his own turf.
There’s a faint hint here of Evelyn’s past. It’s the missing persons chart that she notices. The novel is full of such people: the young women’s missing friend, the mother of a little boy who calls on Evelyn as the only friendly adult in his life, potentially Evelyn herself. We gradually discover that she has had a number of previous lives. We learn almost no specifics, just enough of her childhood to know she was ill treated. We learn that she has walked out of her life a number of times and started over each time, so an undertow of suspense builds: this time, as she almost inadvertently builds a patchwork family around her, will she stay or will she go?
The search for this missing friend turns out to be a minor episode (they don’t actually find her, but the search is resolved). In terms of the longer arc, what is happening here is that Phillip is being drawn back into meaningful participation in society. He will go on to help solve the mystery and become part of Evelyn’s knocked-together community.
There are other great characters: Don, the man from the paint shop who is delighted by Evelyn; and the little boy and his drug-addicted mother. As the back-cover blurb says, Evelyn is going to make a difference in their lives, whether they like it or not. She’s a terrific character and this is an immensely enjoyable book. I’m grateful to the Struggling Artist, who picked it up more or less at random from the Marrickville Library shelves.
You are amazing the way you can unpack a single page like this!
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Thanks, Lisa. It’s really a kind of laziness, though. Easier than trying to hold a whole novel in my hrad
But a whole lot harder to write about…
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