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On the face of it Mr Wigg by Inga Simpson (Hachette) is a novel about nothing but an old man pottering around. It’s a slow story about small things that whimsically meanders its way to covering most of the important stuff in life. This is not page turning fiction by any means and the ending is predictable enough, yet somehow it’s difficult to put down.
The novel is set in 1971 in rural New South Wales where elderly Mr Wigg is living out what’s left of his life on what remains of the family farm. His wife, Mrs Wigg, is dead, his daughter is estranged from the family and his son must move further away because of her demands.
The times may be changing but Mr Wigg fills his solitary days doing the same things that have busied him throughout the decades: tending his orchard of fruit trees, turning their crop into preserves and tuning into the cricket. Now and then his grandchildren come to visit and he tells them fairy tales and teaches them to bake cakes. At times there is contact with his neighbours who are part of the modern generation of farmers and are planting grapes for wine on what used to be Wigg land. But mostly he has no company besides the fruit trees he anthropomorphises wildly and a few chooks.
Mr Wigg’s son wants him to move into town but he resists the idea. He is content with what he’s got. He remembers his wife, reflects on their life together, works hard at his chores, embarks on a couple of special projects and occasionally is reminded he’s not as young and able as he was. That’s really all that happens yet there is so much more going on.
Simpson’s prose is gorgeous in its simplicity and words like “charming”, “delightful” and “warm” come to mind to describe her debut novel. Still Mr Wigg is as thought provoking as it is tender. How we value our elderly, what they can still achieve if we let them, the complexities of family life, the inevitability of change and of regret, the need for fantasy in a world of harsh realities…Simpson touches on each lightly but meaningfully.
The Queensland-based author is also a nature writer which explains her gift for describing landscape and the way the seasons change it. Her recollections of her own grandfather have fuelled the novel, as has her affection for the rhythms of countryside life.
The result is a quiet sort of book, a little gem that aches with nostalgia for a slower, gentler time. Old-fashioned in a good way, it’s not going to do much for fans of high-octane thrillers. This is a very ordinary story about an unremarkable man but one to touch the heart and stay in the memory neverthless.