by Kathryn Gossow
(Pub: Odyssey Books, 2017)
Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow is a modern take on the myth of Cassandra of Troy, a woman who had the gift of prophecy but was cursed so that no one would believe her.
Cassie Shultz lives on a farm in remote Queensland. She is plagued by, in waking dreams and momentary visions, flashes of the future. Cassie struggles to understand these visions. Her gift and any attempts to explain it to others or to warn them result in her ridicule, and her being labelled as a “freak” amongst her peers – even her parents treat her as being a bit odd.
The novel opens with Cassie as a young child – she crawls under the house to play and is bitten by a snake. (There is a link here to one of the interpretations of the Greek myth regarding Cassandra. She and her brother fell asleep in the temple of Apollo were said to have been found surrounded by serpents in the morning.) Gossow’s portrayal of the young Cassie is very good. There is obviously a complex family dynamic happening around her that Cassie does not fully understand and this depiction is engaging.
Later, when Cassie is a teenager, she has all the attendant growing pains that most teenagers do – she is uncertain of her place in the world, desperate for friends, desperate to feel loved and desired and yet her visions have isolated her. What is worse is that her brother has a knack for predicting the weather and is labelled as a prodigy! The section where Cassie is a teen is particularly well written. Gossow evokes her loneliness and longing with seeming ease and Cassie is a character that evolves beautifully as the story progresses. There are moments where you’ll loathe the teen brat and others where your heart will ache for her.
I honestly didn’t think that I was going to enjoy this book. The reason for it was very simple – the novel is written in the third person present tense, which is unusual. I think for majority of authors this is a problematic choice in that it, at least for me, serves to remind readers of the presence of a narrator and that we are being “told” a story. This irked me and often repeatedly pulled me out of the story rather than immersing me in it.
However, I kept reading and I was very glad I did because by the end I thought the choice, stylistically, suited the tale. Cassie goes through her life as a spectator, unable to change events and is isolated from those around her, so choosing the third person present meant the reader almost walked in Cassie’s shoes. We were the same powerless observer of her life that she was and this served to heighten the tragic elements of the story. By about half way through the book I had become accustomed this stylistic choice and was enjoying so much else about Gossow’s prose, that I was immersed in the novel anyway.
This is a book with a broad appeal. I’d label it as a YA crossover novel – though I think the notions that many automatically attach to the YA category would do it a disservice. It’s part coming of age story, part fantasy, part Aussie battler family drama dealing with the grim reality of life on the land.
Simply put it’s great new Aussie fiction.