Rhiannon Wilde, Henry Hamlet’s Heart, University of Queensland Press, July 2021, 328 pp., RRP $19.99 (pbk), ISBN 9780702263149
‘I feel things. Things that could ruin everything.’
Henry Hamlet’s Heart is Rhiannon Wilde’s first novel and won the State Library of Queensland Glendower Award for an Emerging Queensland Writer in 2019.
It’s 2008 in Brisbane and Henry Hamlet is in his last semester of year twelve. He’s the school captain and has a tight group of close friends, although Len has been his best friend ‘since forever’. There’s pressure from all sides for Henry and his friends to decide what direction they want their lives to take, not to mention the immediate pressure of looming exams. And then there is the matter of Henry Hamlet’s heart! Henry has fallen – hard – but will it ruin everything?
This is a bitter-sweet, nostalgic look at the last semester of high-school. Suddenly Henry and his friends realise that the safe cocoon of school is about to disappear. Wilde was a high-school teacher and she successfully conveys the mixed emotions of students at the end of year twelve, as they suddenly realise ‘this is it’. Having worked in a high-school library myself, I can say with confidence that Wilde has nailed the pressures, anxieties and fraught emotions experienced by students at this tumultuous time of their lives.
The support characters are well drawn. Henry’s friends are all very real and likeable. The banter they exchange is exactly what can be heard in the school yard. I particularly liked Henry’s parents, who do their best to be supportive and honest in their communication with their children. Henry disgraces himself at a party by getting extremely drunk. He asks his mother the next morning if he’s grounded and her reply is priceless (and honest): Today will be punishment enough. Plus, I lived through the eighties. Grounding you for pretty much anything would be hypocritical. Though, I do think you need to work on your concept of moderation. Brisbane itself is also a leading support character. The constant heat and humidity, the violent colour of the jacarandas in bloom, the vibrant sunsets all add a sense of place unlike the usual cityscapes.
Henry Hamlet’s Heart is a love story. It’s about discovering how to be honest with yourself, and in turn being honest with others about how you feel. It’s being promoted as a ‘queer’ love story, but I don’t think that’s important. The confusion of emotions is universal. Len expresses it perfectly when Henry asks him if he’s gay: It’s never really been an either/or kind of thing for me…You don’t have to have everything all figured out and put in a neat little box.
High school students who can find the time between all their required reading, will love this book as it is a true reflection of the most exciting (and terrifying) time of their lives. There is nothing sexually explicit in this book, however it does contain mature themes involving alcohol consumption and sex. I would confidently recommend it for Senior Fiction collections in high school libraries.
Reviewed by Gaby Meares