KYDYAC – Loving Athena by Joanne Horniman

by Stephanie Van Schilt , August 14, 20122 Comments

Today’s KYD YA Championship post sees YA specialist Judith Ridge explaining why the beautiful Loving Athena should win the glory.

I’ve long been a fan and even something of a champion of Joanne Horniman. I think she’s one of the great under-recognised Australian YA writers. Yes, her books from time to time get a nod in the CBCA or state Premier’s awards, but somehow they still seem to fly under the radar when people think or talk about Australian YA. While readers may be familiar with her more recent and more ‘successful’ novels ­ About a GirlSecret Scribbled Notebooks and even Mahalia ­ for me, it all began with the first novel, in what I can’t help but think of as her ‘Lismore cycle’.

Loving Athena is the story of Keats, who has lived his whole life at Elysian Farm (an actual place, fictionalised in the novel), a shared community inland from Lismore. Raised by Jack, who is neither father nor grandfather, Keats has lived his life overseen by his ‘sort-of mothers’ ­ midwife Juliet and the other women of the Farm who fed the infant Keats their own milk after his own too-young mother drowned. Their babies ­ girls all ­ became Keats’ sort-of sisters, but despite all this mothering and love, despite his beloved Jack, Keats remains somehow alone, conjuring up a substitute mother and muse ­ for Keats has lived up to his name and is a poet ­ in the form of Euterpe, goddess of lyric poetry, who pads silently through Keats’ life as he seeks love and family, and solace for the unresolved loss of his infancy.

The ‘Athena’ of the title is a young woman Keats meets in the streets of Lismore one hot summer day at the start of his final year of high school. Athena’s real name is Etta, and she’s newly moved from Sydney, bringing with her other people’s half-told tales. (‘Give me every one of your memories,’ she says to Keats. ‘I want to make them my own.’) But so struck is Keats by her long-legged, grave beauty (‘awkward and graceful at the same time’) and courageous, forthright way of taking on the world, that to him she is instantly Athena ­ goddess of wisdom and justice, and motherless like Keats (although Etta has the classic nuclear family: mother, father, younger brother). It’s not until Athena-Etta can confess her own great loss, and Keats understands his own, that she becomes to him a grounded, fully human girl, and they make steps towards what will be their first adult romance.

I think I’m personally attached to Horniman’s novels because I lived and worked for a year in and around Lismore ­ —the places she so effectively evokes through her at times sometimes lush, yet also often spare, and always lovely prose. But Horniman does more than describe familiar landmarks; she evokes the very character of this part of the world: the pulse of the streets and countryside through its extremes of climate through the year’s cycle, and the emotional climate of the people who live in town and country, suburb and commune. In doing so, she transcends the specific to explore the universal, as the very great writers do.

The author’s note at the back of my battered 1997 paperback quotes Horniman as saying that Loving Athena completes a trilogy of sorts that began with her early YA novels Sand Monkeys and The Serpentine Belt: ‘They all concern young people who are searching for a lost parent, and characters making strong familial connections with people who aren’t related to them.’ Horniman wasn’t done with those themes after Loving Athena, but much as I love and admire her subsequent novels, I’m not sure that she’s ever written anything that matches Loving Athena for its compassion and insight, for the deceptive simplicity of its prose and its great heart. It’s a comparatively short novel, too, and all the more effective for it, with every word and phrase, every narrative turning carrying more than their share of meaning and nuance. It’s a book I love to return to, for all its grave and graceful beauty. I hope others may now also seek out its considerable pleasures.

Judith Ridge is internationally recognised as one of Australia’s leading experts on children’s and young adult literature. She has worked as an editor, community arts coordinator, writer and critic and has written about children’s and youth literature for journals such as Viewpoint and Magpies, The Horn Book (US) and The Melbourne Age. Judith has twice been a judge on the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, is a Churchill Fellow and has an MA in children’s literature. She is currently project officer on WestWords: the Western Sydney Young People’s Literature Project. Judith blogs at

If you want Loving Athena to win the KYD YA Championship, you can cast your vote for it here! Vote now and you can also go into the draw to win some amazing prizes.

  • Kate O’D

    I’ve long been a champion and ardent fan of Jo’s work, for all the reasons you note above. I love how smart her books are, how perfectly written the words are, the small observations and the big ideas – and the characters I fall in love with. I’ve never been to Lismore, but her books have given me this very weird romanticised idea of the place.

    This is a wonderful post about Loving Athena and I can’t tell you how pleased I am that you chose this book, Judith.

  • Penni

    I think Joanne is one of the most intriguing and intelligent writers writing in Australia at the moment (along with Ursula Dubosarsky and Margo Lanagan). She’s the kind of writer that makes me love YA and what it can do, how the body can inhabit the text: the wonderfully disruptive unreliable leaky revealing body.

    I haven’t read this one though, thanks for the heads up.


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