Book review: The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbi Neal

(courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

The Secret World of Connie Starr releases 1 June 2022; ARC courtesy NetGalley.

If you cast your mind back quite some decades, specifically the middle swathe of the twentieth century, your overwhelming impression is of impressively impervious social cohesion and conformity, bolstered by church and state in resolute lockstep and a populace all too happy to toe the line and make sure that any wavering souls do the same.

And while that’s true to a great extent, it’s by no means the whole story with a great many people caught up in situations from terrible marriages to abusive situations to closeted sexuality and on and on, all of them prisoners of a moral orthodoxy that brookes no obvious dissent.

That doesn’t mean people back in the day didn’t push the envelope with fierce rebelliousness because of course they did, but by and large they made sure that any bucking of societal mores happened well out of sight and thus, hopefully out of mind.

Alas Connie Starr, the titular protagonist of The Secret World of Connie Starr by Robbie Neal never got the memo, because from the day she is born to young mother named Flora, second wife of kindly but emotionally conflicted Baptist pastor Joseph, in 1934, Connie, or Constance to give her her full Christian name, does not even remotely march to the beat of anyone’s drum but her own, highly idiosyncratic one.

Her willingness to buck any and every trend, and make no secret of the fact that she is doing so, is evident to her mother immediately, her baby evincing every sign of not going with the flow from day one, no, minute one.

“Because that was how Connie was in the world: apart. She didn’t care for the day-to-day things of life – what was for lunch or that they had no butter and only lard for the bread or what the Japanese might do next or whether the girls at school were playing elastics or rounder this term …

Connie didn’t think about who she would become when she grew up of what she might do. When people asked ‘ And what do you want to be, Connie?’ she would shrug her shoulders and walk away and not see the confusion and sadness in Flora’s eyes that she couldn’t even teach the girl to be polite. Connie gave the things of life no thought at all. Instead she was separated from the world and all the people she knew in it and she watched them go about their lives from her hidden spot in the lemon tree as if the people below were ants scurrying about without any realisation of how small and insignificant they were.” (PP. 220-221)

A free spirit when they are not exactly thick on the ground or top of the popularity stakes, Connie starts as she means to go on, as does Neal who in the captivating first chapter writes with an emotional poetry and warm accessibility which firmly establishes how out of the mainstream Connie is and how that makes her a lonely outlier in a world of people who feel they have no choice but to conform to the strictures of the time.

The beauty of The Secret World of Connie Starr is that it pulls back the curtains to reveal that almost everyone is, some way or shape, trapped in an unwanted prison of society or the church’s making. (They all know they are caught in these constrained roles too but none can see a way out that wouldn’t involve bringing a whole world of condemnation down upon them.)

For some this is no real burden; Flora, for instance, may not necessarily have her every emotional need met, especially as step-mum to three kids (Thom, Lydia and Danny) and mother to a quirky daughter who’s an emotional island in many respects, but Joseph treats her well and she intuitively senses that losing any real voice in the relationship is worth the cost since she has security, safety and standing in the community as the minister’s wife.

By way of contrast, Lydia and Danny, for wholly different reasons respectively, are stuck in roles not of their choosing, unable to be who they really want to be in a world that does not look kindly on those who might be tempted to exercise some existential authenticity.

Robbi Neal (courtesy Harper Collins Publishers Australia)

The main focus though, as it should be, is on Connie who sees angels and demons warring in the skies and on buildings around her and who finds herself always on the outer, forever saying what comes to her mind even though she knows she should be using the same internal edit button as everyone around her (a problem however you slice it but even more so when because of your family, you are tightly wound up in the church which yields the least of all places).

The irony is that many of the people around her are as eager to be free-spirited and unconstrained as Connie but they know the true cost of speaking your mind and to use thoroughly modern turn of phrase beloved of Oprah and the like, “living your truth”, and stay within their assigned lanes, for the most part.

The events of The Secret World of Connie Starr, which take place from the mid-thirties through to the early fifties with a particular focus on the horrors of World War Two and the effect it has on Connie’s hometown of Ballarat, and the Baptist church at its heart, cast an incriminating light on the way in which conformity costs those caught in its web.

What it also does though is assure those who may step outside the lines that there is a place for them; people like Birdie, trapped in an abusive marriage to a philandering man, who may not have too much room to manoeuvre but who strikes out nevertheless; watching Birdie slowly but surely assert her independence and sense of self is one of the quiet but emotionally powerful joys of this insightful, beautifully written novel.

“He [Gabe] often saw her [Connie] sitting alone, chatting to herself at lunchtime in the shelter shed while the other girls kept their distance. He would stop and talk to her, sit beside her for a moment until the boys called him away and he made it clear to everyone he was on Connie’s side. Connie was his one true friend. She never made allowances for him and she took him out of the confines of his body and sometimes showed him glimpses of her strange world.” (P. 306)

If you have ever felt like you never fit the narrow world around you then Connie is your heroine.

Not because she does anything dramatic nor changes the town for the better, Anne of Green Gables or Pollyanna-like, but because she persists and hangs in through a welter of misunderstandings, horrific trauma and a gross lack of appreciation of who she is and that simply because she is innately wired to challenge the system with an honesty of self so close to the surface that she cannot begin to hide it, she somehow resists being permanently ruined (though the hurt when it occurs is grievous and lasting so she’s not immune to brokenness).

Sure, her wired-in outlier status makes it harder for anyone to get really near, although that begins to change towards the end of the back as those who truly have her back make their presence known, but she has a truthfulness about her that makes her an appealing protagonist who voices what others are thinking and often doing behind the scenes.

In the end what makes this intimate novel of love and connection, brokenness and societal entrapment so evocative, as it depicts Australia in the decades that gave birth only twenty or so years later to the hedonistic openness of the sixties and seventies, is the way in which it celebrates the inherent wonder and beauty of being different, willing to admit there is as much to be gained as lost from being wholly and wholeheartedly yourself.

A richly poetic, emotionally luminous novel that recreates and brings alive a long-gone Australia full of love and inclusion but loss, grief and cruel exclusion too, The Secret World of Connie Starr is a gem of a read, a story of a one young woman (and her lemon tree) destined to push the boundaries whose unique story is told with honesty, hope, and quiet emotional incisiveness which warms your heart, even at the bleakest of points, because all the way through Connie remains Connie, whatever the cost, and you can’t help but love her deeply and always for it.

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