“It is solved by walking.” A simple phrase, but one that becomes more significant for father and daughter Rich and Sophie as circumstances deliver them to the brink of tragedy, unacquainted since his brisk departure fifteen years earlier.
After an argument with Sophie’s mother, Sandy, Rich drove away into the night, leaving mother and baby behind. Growing up in insular Ayresville, Australia, Sophie chafes at her mother’s entrenched feminism, generous affection and discomfort with conflict. Too often, the raven-haired emo goth teen has felt the most mature of the pair. Assessing Sandy’s middle-aged body, Sophie is horror-stricken by the genetic potential of flabby arms and a broad girth: “That’s what having a baby did to your body… like balloons that had been stretched to the limit… then gradually left to deflate again… like overripe fruit.” Rigorously restricting caloric intake and indulging in a punishing exercise regimen, body dysmorphia creeps into Sophie’s daily exertions like a shadowy psychic twin with its own demands for attention.
Then, out of the blue on her fifteenth birthday, Rich’s invitation dangles like forbidden fruit: a wilderness trek through Tasmania for father and daughter to get to know one another. Envisioning an opportunity to escape the dull confines of Sandy’s stunted world, Sophie finds the proposal irresistible. While Sandy attends a Goddess workshop, Sophie begins a revelatory journey through the minefield of her parents’ failed relationship, intent on staking her own claim to her absentee father. Rich’s first reaction to the whip-thin teen who has replaced the infant of memory is that she “looked like one of those Bratz dolls.” As the civility of their first meeting wears with the accelerating physical demands of the walking tour, the critically observant Sophie is not unaware of Rich’s clay feet: “Now she watched him, that stranger. That Polaroid father.” Both are unsure of the way forward.
In Kennedy’s competent hands, this story is magic, laced with the romance of both Rich and Sandy’s blind infatuation with the rewards of their social activism in the ‘70s at Tasmania’s Franklin River, the spark that ignited their love affair, and the increasing dissatisfaction between parent and child, Rich and Sophie’s tentative rapprochement suffering from overexposure. While a blistering indictment of environmental pretensions from the volatile 1970s to the “Me” age of technology and entitlement, this tale is wound tightly ‘round Sophie’s brittle heart, adrift in a world of alarming beauty with a man who seems indifferent to her needs, Rich suffering the excursion with little grace and much complaint, bad-mouthing the fellow travelers with whom Sophie laughs over shared follies. The vague idea of fatherhood nurtured in imagination comes to life in flesh and blood Sophie, Rich unprepared for a blunt evaluation of his worth: “He was tied to her, bound to her. He stood there swaying… sick with rage.”
In anyone else’s hands, this novel might have turned petty, Sophie’s desperation trivialized in the he-said-she-said of her parents’ differing recollections. But Kennedy wields the language of the heart with such vigor and cutting wit that Australia’s rangy beauty pales in comparison to the raw emotion evoked by this father-daughter reckoning. Unmanned by his failure in a rugged terrain that demands authoritative action - worse, exposed before his daughter - Rich gropes for clarity: “He wonders why, of everything, her tenderness is the very worst thing.” Awakening from the torpor of her faux sophistication to cope with the world, Sophie yearns for the comfort of a mother she thought superfluous, cynicism crumbling from the weight of gratitude for that most precious of relationships between mother and child.