Australia is home to the world’s first feature length film; 1906’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, a sepia-coloured silent film shot in the Ivanhoe bush. But despite this legacy, we’ve never had our own Hollywood moment. That honour went to the US, with their high production values, glamourous film stars and breakneck output.
Danielle Binks’ young adult debut (following on from her first middle-grade novel, The Year the Maps Changed), The Monster of Her Age imagines what could have been if Australia had its own cinematic empire. A love letter to the movie industry, Binks treats us to an alternate universe where film history and the legacy of the illustrious Lovinger family – the Aussie equivalent to Hollywood’s Barrymore dynasty – are intertwined.
The Monster of Her Age centres around Ellie, one of the youngest members of the Lovinger family tree and granddaughter to the revered film star, Lottie Lovinger. The pair shared the silver screen in an Indie horror movie – an experience that furthered Lottie’s career but left Ellie deeply traumatised and estranged from her family. Now seventeen, Ellie has returned home to Hobart for the first time in years, to make peace with her dying grandmother.
These tensions between Ellie and Lottie make for an intriguing family drama. What happened to Ellie while she was on set, and how is Lottie involved? Bound up in years of resentment, the mystery is a tight ball to unravel. In its own way, it feels like a horror story, with the book haunted by this unspeakable thing from Ellie’s past. Fittingly, she spends much of the novel in a haunted house – Lottie’s home, which has been passed along the Lovinger family for generations. The manor is stuffed with set pieces from her movies and artefacts from the previous occupants. It reminds me of Xanadu, the mansion in Citizen Kane, and all the treasures in it, collecting dust.
Speaking of hauntings, The Monster of Her Age is also a dissertation on horror films. Ellie finds companionship with Riya, a cinephile who speaks in manifestos and has a love of decorative collar tips. Just like Ellie and many other readers, I’m a little bit in love with her; Riya is a co-founder of Fright Night for Final Girls (FNFG), a film club where young women can meet and discuss horror films through a feminist lens. It’s the kind of club that I’m a) jealous of because there isn’t one in my area, and b) is so cool that I’m tempted to start one myself. The scenes where the FNFG convene are a real highlight. Watching Riya and the gang unpack gems like A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Tigers Are Not Afraid is like sitting in on a media studies class – but better. They have a film buff’s passion for cinema, and the earnestness of students just about to transition into university.
At its core, The Monster of Her Age is a romantic read. It’s buoyed by the glitz of the Golden Age of Hollywood, albeit it with an Aussie slant, as well as the sapphic love between Ellie and Riya and the warm feelings of home you can associate with a place. In an interview with #LoveOzYA, Binks said she wanted the novel to be ‘a very walkable book’. Set predominantly in Hobart and briefly in Melbourne, the cast are set against a backdrop of familiar sights: golden light spreading across the River Derwent; the columned rotunda in St David’s Park; the leafy, emerald-green wallpaper of the Hopetoun Tea Rooms. It’s exciting to see the places you call home reflected back at you in literature, to see them woven into stories. And in a time when we’re facing the ebb and flow of lockdowns, travelling around the country within its pages is bittersweet.
Binks covers some diverse territory in The Monster of Her Age; grieving, feminism, trauma and sapphic romance are all explored beautifully. Film buffs, monsters and nerds of many ages are sure to be swept up in Binks’ glittering Australian Hollywood. Recommended for readers 13+.
Reviewed by Melina Bunting, The Book Bird’s guest book reviewer.