MDP: We don’t review books as a rule on the main site (here!) but occasionally a book comes along that I’m keen to give some air-time. I’ve long been a fan of Kim Westwood’s writing – and Mandy Wrangles has written a through appraisal of her new book. Enjoy!
The Courier’s New Bicycle – Kim Westwood’s second novel – is provocative and, at times, confronting. It’s a glimpse into a not-so-impossible near future, thrusting the reader into a world that’s so familiar, and so real it’s unsettling.
Salisbury Forth is a bicycle courier in post-pandemic Melbourne. After the government rolled out a flu-vaccine to a panicked public, an unexpected side-effect screws with hormone levels and leaves most of the population infertile and desperate for cures. The religious party ‘Nation First’ has been voted into power, prohibiting ‘unnatural practices’ including gene therapy, hormone replacement and surrogacy. The only cure they condone for the return of family is prayer. Salisbury delivers ethical hormone treatments for her boss, Gail, who has been forced to move her business underground – a dangerous occupation that could get Sal killed at any time.
But delivering contraband isn’t Sal’s only reason to beware the religious zealots and vigilante groups operating under the guise of the law. Sal is a sexual transgressor, androgynous and prefers women as her sexual partners. Her very existence has become illegal.
When a batch of deadly, tainted hormones packaged as Gail’s makes its way onto the street, Sal is charged with finding out who is behind the plot to wipe out her boss’s business. Is it someone wanting to take over Gail’s lucrative patch, or are there even more sinister motives behind the pesticide-enhanced kit circulating the streets with Gail’s stamp on them?
The Courier’s New Bicycle has it all. Page flipping pace, almost as fast as Sal’s bike itself, this is a story that will not only make you pause and ponder your own ethical standards and acceptance of government policies, but it’s beautifully and sparsely crafted:
‘I am a machine, legs and lungs pumping, body tucked flat and low, eyes on the route ahead. Speeding along the city streets, a shadow with lights and reflectors flashing, a savage joy ripples through me. Adrenaline courses, quicksilver, in muscles and ligaments, joints and skin, and I feel nothing of the cold, the dark, the jolting surfaces…’
As a Melbourne native, I particularly found Westwood’s use of the city as a backdrop fun and enlightening. Some of the city’s landmarks and streets have retained their original names and appearance, yet others, though still recognisable have been renamed in accordance with the country’s new religious obsession. Westwood has rebuilt Melbourne as a dark and dangerous place, while losing none of its gothic beauty along the way. Prayer groups huddle under sparse streetlights, and the wealthy financial districts have morphed into safe places for brothels and surrogacy teams.
This is a gritty story that brings bare-bones emotion to the fore. One particular scene early in the book, where Sal takes part in a clandestine animal rescue operation was so raw and graphic, was almost too difficult to keep reading. However this scene is pivotal to not only the story and its conclusion, but also in the way we get to know Sal and her ethical standards and beliefs. She is a character of immense backbone, willing to put her own safety on the line to stand by what she knows is right.
Westwood’s darkness is sprinkled with moments of humour – I particularly loved Sal’s cat, the purple glow-in-the-dark Nitro; just like Sal herself, his existence has been outlawed by moralistic bigots too frightened to think for themselves. There were also moments of true friendship and loyalty so tender, it felt as though I was intruding on private conversations and thoughts.
The Courier’s New Bicycle is not what I would label as an easy read, purely for the subject matter. While Westwood’s word craft is stunning, the reader is shocked over and over again by the feasibility of a near future just like this one. This is a story that will – and should – stay with you long after the last page is read, as commentary on a society that just may well be where we’re heading.
Published by Harper Voyager.
Paperback, 327 pages.
ISBN – 978 0 7322 8988 1