Scatterheart - Verbannt in die Ferne - Lili Wilkinson Dear publisher(s), are you sure you had checked the spelling of the final version thoroughly before handing it over to the printers? I am pretty convinced the historical young adult novel about a nineteenth century high society girl being shipped from London to New South Wales as a convicted thief of her own jewellery had been meant to bear the title Scatterbrain instead of Scatterheart. Certainly, Hannah Cheshire is a bit fickle, too, as far as her ability to fall in love, recognise love and give love is concerned, but who would expect otherwise: Hannah grew up having no mother, no friends and no companions beside her teacher and her cold, calculating fraudster father, and is barely fifteen when the latter flees out of the country under the pretense of a sudden business trip and leaves his helpless offspring to face her fate completely unprepared and alone. But Hannah's stupidity, her naiveté and her inability to process and use what is happening and being said to her deserves a big, fat single-worded title. Scatterbrain undoubtedly sounds nice. I would prefer Peabrain, though ... or - even better - Fleabrain to underline the convict ship theme and evoke all kinds of authentic images - just like writing does. I will come back to the rather applaudably graphic scenery in a minute. I just have to elaborate some more to defend my dislike of Hannah and her 'friends' and foes - everyone, more or less.

Hannah is well bred. A real lady. She even tries to shake her fellow inmates’ hands in her London prison cell. And she seems to be well equipped enough to learn, for her private tutor, Thomas Behr, enjoyed immensely to stuff her with scientific theories that had not been on his employer’s lesson plan. But at the same time Hannah managed to live almost fifteen years in the midst of London society, in a large house full of lively, gossiping servants, in a house with a daily newspaper on the breakfast table, without mustering the slightest amount of curiosity about her father’s business, about his plans for her future, about how a household is run and things get done. If someone dares to prod and ask for details, she is completely content with giving placeholder answers like "My father is a gentleman". A normally curious girl would have been embarrassed to have been caught clueless and would have put a lot of effort in finding out afterwards. Not Hannah. Hannah trusts that her father means well and will tell her everything she needs to know in his time. Therefore Hannah does not protest or wonder, when Thomas and other servants get fired, Hannah does not draw conclusions when her father, who promised to marry her to a wealthy man of high standing, asks her to dress up for a dinner with a business partner of him who is fiftyish, proportionless and so boring Hannah even considers that one evening as a waste of time. When all her former servants have left the house for good, Hannah has no idea where the contents of her chamber pot usually go. So she just amasses them day after day in her room. Her idea of London topography is so hazy that she loses her sense of direction on her quest for a pawnbroker. She does not know anything about reproduction. She has learned everything about star constellations, but has not heard that they are used to navigate ships. I had the impression of a time travelling heroine when it became clear that she did not know that boys commonly began their career in seafaring as young as nine or ten in her time. And I could not believe that Hannah is still particular about her food after two weeks in a mouldy prison cell and four unconscious days on the convict ship. It drove me mad that she does not explain at her court hearing that the supposed stolen earrings were hers and that she never asks for details, when Long Meg, Tabby, Molly and other fellow prisoners throw hints and warnings about her new friend, Lieutenant James, or the ship’s cruel and syphilis-marked doctor into her direction. She must notice that all of the women around had precious life experiences as a hierarchy’s lowest members. But she never gets the faintest idea that they could show her the ropes, which would keep her out of danger. Her birth makes her superior in her eyes.

Apropos hints. I kind of liked the prostitute Long Meg and her balance between life-saving selfishness and sympathy for the underdog. But I could not stand her meaningful, but worthless hints and her strange, sudden self-destructive behaviour on the ship. The first just served to make the reader uneasy about the unknown dangers Hannah would be surely soon facing, the latter did not fit her personality. She could have taken Hannah aside and told her bluntly what happened on the crew’s deck at night, scattered Hannah’s romantic illusions about her supposedly white-armoured gentleman. But she doesn’t. She does not even tell Hannah her suspicions, when the two of them go to rescue little Molly. All of it is a second rate stylistic device to show Hannah sinking deeper and deeper into her self-dug whole of rich-girl-naivety – from which she will emerge chastened, wizened and refined, I suppose.

The other person who haunts Hannah oracle-like with warning metaphors should not even be on that ship. Tabby is old and brittle. The Australia-bound convict ships transported young and middle-aged strong women to serve their time, work hard and become brides or mistresses. Someone on the brink of dying of old age would not have been invested in.

Hannah’s love interest on that ship is so obviously two-faced from the beginning (He sits on his jacket, she sits on the floor in a puddle), that reading their romantic scenes was not fun at all.

The main part of Scatterheart is meant to be a dark, realistically hopeless tale, I suppose. I think Lili Wilkinson researched life on London’s streets, life in London’s prisons and life on convict transports quite thoroughly. For Scatterheart is brimfull of disgusting odours - vomit, pus, urine, dried menstrual blood, festering wounds, bad teeth -, visuals – the ship, the cell, the dirt, coarse clothing, hooked-up skirts, worms, blood, corpses -, and sounds – moans, cries and crackling laughter. There is a heap of creative swearing in the story, a lot of raw sex and violence. And although I admire the painted picture, I liked the young adult novel Abby Lynn, written in the 80s by Rainer M. Schröder a whole lot more. It also deals with an innocent girl who is convicted for theft and befriends an older woman who looks out for her on a convict ship. It also does not gloss over the exchange of sexual favours for food, the sadistic bride buyers on the lookout for young bed warmers, the undernourishment and so on. But it tells the story of friendship in unexpected places, the story of hope, a beautiful romance. It shows you normal people speaking plain text instead of sprouting riddles. But if you thought Abby Lynn was too cheerful and aimed at a too young readership, you might enjoy Scatterheart. Well, I didn’t. I stopped at page 216. A certain event killed the last curiosity in me to learn the two women’s fate.

Another similar themed novel I have wanted to read is Scout by Nicole Pluss. But after this personal flop I am not so sure anymore. I will also stay away from the rest of Lili Wilkinson’s work. I also only barely liked the characters in her young adult crime story A Pocketful of Eyes. Now I am convinced we are simply not compatible.

A last word according the German edition: What is the use of spreading the text on so many thick-papered pages with an enormous white margin around the text? It is unnecessary bulky to hold and carry around, unnecessary expensive and a waste of wood and shelf space. I would never have bought this edition. I only borrowed it, but I hope it does not exceed the maximum weight for book parcels.