'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 30 April 2024

Review: A Small Collection Of Happiness

Hettie is a smallish girl with a biggish imagination. She also has a biggish personality, that much is evident from the first pages of this new very different, somewhat off-beat new Zana Fraillon middle grade novel. 

She lives in a very unprepossessing block of flats, which look out over an equally unprepossessing yard, in an even more unprepossessing part of town. 

The whole town has an unloved, unkempt and barren look and feel about it, despite its ironic name of The Gardens. Yet, within this dreary landscape, there is still life and colour, certainly to Hettie’s mind, and as the narrative unfolds, that life begins to revive and restore the colours and happiness it was once designed to hold.

On the day Ada arrives and moves into the next-door flat, there is a huge storm and one might think that the old woman had been blown in by the wind itself. Her grumpiness is the very antithesis of Hettie’s chirpiness and two more unlikely friends could not be imagined.

The pair start off bickering and that barely subsides, even as their strange friendship grows. Hettie seems to soften Ada, who gradually becomes reconciled not only to her young neighbour, but also a stray cat and a growing new interest in life. In turn, Hettie begins to share her boundless joy in the small things like spiderlings hatching, or feathers blowing with Ada.

When their unlovely flats are threatened with demolition, Hettie is beside herself. All her memories of her lost father are tied up in this one place, and now that she has Ada too, she doesn’t want to lose any of it. A strange set of coincidences roll out.

There are rumours of a panther being sighted in the neighbourhood scrub. A silver box filled with old photographs reveal the origins of The Gardens. And a rare book of fairytales, written by a famous resident is within reach. The combination of the odd and seemingly disparate events, ensure the saving and, in fact, the rejuvenation of the neighbourhood, and the cementing of lifelong friendships and family life.

There is a magical realism at play here that is, at times, quite beautiful even as the prosaic daily happenings seem small and almost insignificant. Ada’s grief is assuaged as is Hettie’s, and both become entirely secure with each other and their place in this circle of The Gardens. There is a real joy as each finds a way through their own idiosyncrasies for a ‘greater good’.

It is a most unusual narrative and, often, quite moving in its emotional interplay between the main characters. I believe astute readers from around 11 or 12 would be best suited to this and be most appreciative of the subtle humour, the interplay with the two protagonists, and the eerie spiritual aspect. 

King’s illustrations are a mixture of realistic and abstract representations which lends another layer of the magical realism, to the text. With its themes of friendship, hope and happiness, it will definitely find a place in the hearts of many young readers who enjoy a story with a difference. Recommended for readers around mid to upper primary.  Teaching notes are available.

A Small Collection of Happinesses: A tale of loneliness, grumpiness and one extraordinary friendship
Author: Zana Fraillon 
Illustrator: Stephen Michael King
Publisher: Hachette, Imprint: Lothian, $14.99
Date of Publication: May 1 2024
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 9780734422989
For ages: 10+
Type: Middle Grade Fiction