Kim Westwood

Harper Collins (August 2011) 

ISBN: 978-0-7322-8988-1

Reviewed by Lorraine Cormack

The Courier’s New Bicycle is the second novel from Australian writer Kim Westwood. It is a novel likely to win her new fans, as it is well written and in some regards more accessible than her debut, The Daughters of Moab. Most notably, the plot is more straightforward and uses some familiar tropes, and that’s going to make it easier for more people to read and enjoy it. Also, there is a warmth to this novel that was sometimes lacking in the earlier novel; in particular, Westwood now offers an engaging central character. However, while the plot and setting is less unique than in The Daughters of Moab, Westwood maintains her sparse tone and occasionally dark humor.

To some extent, this is a crime novel in a science fictional setting. The action takes place in near future Australia. A flu vaccine rolled out Australia-wide under the pressure of a deadly pandemic has had the unplanned side effect of all but destroying human fertility. A religious party was voted into power and once in power unveiled a number of unsavoury policies, including those banning fertility treatments, surrogacy arrangements, and indeed any remedy but prayer. At the same time resources such as fuel and water are in shortening supply, and this affects things such as transport – bicycles are again viable and popular forms of transport.

In this world Salisbury Forth treads an increasingly dangerous path. A bicycle courier, she primarily transports illegal hormones for the fertility industry, operating in the Melbourne underground. She herself is androgynous, and prefers women as her sexual partners. Either her appearance or her preferences could get her tagged as a transgressor, and both together could get her killed. Always risky, Sal’s world gets still more dangerous when a mysterious competitor decides to try to put her boss out of business. If Sal can’t find who it is, her livelihood, the people she loves, and the small quiet safe life she’s built herself could all be destroyed in a heartbeat or two.

In some regards, The Courier’s New Bicycle is not that original. A world where human fertility has plunged to almost zero. A world where a religious party has come to political power and begun to impose their religious beliefs on everyone. A world where resources such as power and water are in short supply. A world where those who are different, particularly sexually, are ostracised. Most readers will have come across all those ideas before, and more than once. However, Westwood creates a world that seems very real, and Salisbury Forth’s perspective is unusual, if not entirely unique.

A female in a world of barrenness, Salisbury is not desperate for a child, a perspective often focused on by writers using this idea. In fact, the thought doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind despite the industry she works in. Sal’s sexuality and her need to keep it relatively private help explain how she slipped into the underworld and cast light on a whole seam of outcasts who exist in the society. Her vulnerability, emotional and physical, helps explain why it’s possible for so many people to be oppressed and harassed. Sal is a realistic and empathetic character, and she provides a good window onto a society she doesn’t quite belong to anymore. Most readers are going to follow the story eager to know what happens to Sal.

There are some aspects of the novel that didn’t quite work for me. For instance, the novel is set in the near future, and people run around with mobile phones, and use computers and jump drives. In other words, the technology isn’t dramatically different to what we use today. However, it seems oddly stunted and no reason is given for that. People use their phones for phonecalls and texts – and that seems to be it. People use computers, but there’s no mention of the internet. There seems to be no news in any medium. I found this curious – things that are a part of our daily life have been disappeared from this novel, and I don’t recall any explanation of why. At times this makes the novel feel old-fashioned, even though it’s intended as science fiction.

And tied in with this is the question of what’s happening elsewhere, and how it might impact on Australia. Sure, medical treatments and surrogacy have been banned. But there are references that suggest Australia is the only country affected, so why aren’t people agitating for intercountry adoption? Why aren’t sexual “transgressors” trying to emigrate? The almost complete absence of references to the rest of the world again seems old fashioned, as though somehow Australia has again become an isolated country with limited communications with others. But why? Again, no explanation is forthcoming.

However, these sorts of issues are relatively minor things that won’t impact on most readers’ enjoyment of the novel. Another example is that the resolution of the novel has one thing too many neatly dovetailed into the overall scheme for me to able to swallow it entirely comfortably – but this is a fault of many crime novels and again most readers will be able to shrug it off.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is an interesting and entertaining novel that’s likely to be enjoyed by quite a wide audience, including those with a taste for crime novels. The Daughters of Moab was a challenging read (although ultimately rewarding), and the more straightforward plot and more familiar tropes will make this novel more attractive to more readers. This is recommended for readers who like to see their genres cross somewhat, and also to those interested in near future science fiction.