Alison Gibbs' debut novel pits hippies against loggers in 1970s outback Australia

Alison Gibbs, a writer not afraid to take risks. Picture: Supplied

Alison Gibbs, a writer not afraid to take risks. Picture: Supplied

  • Repentance, by Alison Gibbs. Scribe, $32.99.

Repentance is a thoughtful novel, set in 1970s Australia, when environmental politics began to develop into an important movement, setting those involved in forestry against people protesting against the industry.

We see the conflict through various eyes, notably those of 13-year-old Joanne, daughter of a local shop owner. One of the strengths of Gibbs's novel is the way she navigates between different points of view. We also see things through the eyes of the "hippies", as the locals call them, who adopt various tactics in protesting the logging of old-growth forests.

The pacifist beliefs of some are contrasted with more militant individuals from Australia and elsewhere.

The growing tension between these tendencies is as important a force in the book as the more obvious conflict between those working in the timber industry, and the conservationists as a whole.

The sexism experienced by young girls, and women within the protest movement, is an important element in the novel.

Equally, questions of parenting, secrecy and loss play out in the lives of the characters.

Gibbs's portrayal of Joanne and her sometimes friend Melanie, whose rather erratic mother is one of the protesters, is sympathetic, but she also portrays the mill owner as a basically decent person.

Indigenous people who live in the area are largely unknown to most of the white characters.

Gibbs sometimes portrays the voice of the natural world itself in Repentance, notably in a beautiful coda, which seems to comment on the human activities which will influence its future.

Gibbs is a writer willing to take risks, and her novel is far from an easy tale of good versus evil, despite the rather American Western-sounding title (which is also the name of the town in which the novel is set).

I have no intention of revealing the end of the book, but the tensions portrayed throughout are resolved in a particularly vivid way.

Gibbs does an excellent job of making the ending plausible and shocking at the same time.

Joanne's future seems to be inextricably linked to the struggles in the forest, even though she has generally tried to distance herself from the conflict.

An eminently readable novel bringing a significant period in Australian history to life, Repentance is a fascinating debut, both multi-faceted and assured.

The struggles portrayed in its pages continue to play out over 40 years later.

  • Penelope Cottier writes poetry as PS Cottier.
This story Loggers and hippies in 1970s outback Australia first appeared on The Canberra Times.