courierKim Westwood is a writer with a rare, light touch. The Courier’s New Bicycle is her second novel. I haven’t read her first, The Daughters of Moab, so this is my first foray into Westwood’s long fiction, though I have enjoyed her short stories in the past.

This book is the story of gender transgressive, Salibury Forth, and his/her life as a courier of contraband hormones in a dystopian near-future Melbourne. A pandemic has cause widespread decay among society due to its effect of making a large proportion of the population sterile. The governing authorities are religious zealots and the world is not a very pleasant place any more.

I won’t go into any more detail about the story here, as it’s easily learned elsewhere. However, it’s fundamentally a noir-ish whodunnit, with people double-crossing other people, trouble on the streets, and Salisbury trying to sort it all out. Salisbury is also an activist, working with a clandestine group to free animals from the cruelty of factory hormone farming. So Westwood tackles big issues here – gender, religious oppression, cruel farming practices, activism. It would be easy for the book to become a diatribe, a lecture, but it doesn’t.

I have to admit that at first I thought the book wasn’t going to work for me. But I soon locked into Westwood’s light, lyrical style and it all started to gel. She deals with very heavy subjects with a nuanced touch and lets characters speak for themselves. The mystery is convoluted and, at times, a bit opaque, but gripping nonetheless. The world she creates is very well realised, and not a place I would ever want to live. This story turned out to be transportive.

One of things I enjoyed the most is Salisbury’s connection with her bicycle in a world where petrol engines are virtually extinct, and the freedom that bicycle gives to Salisbury, who is otherwise very trapped by her world, her sexuality, her relationships and everything else (I’m saying “her” for ease of writing – you can read the book and decide for yourself!) I’m a keen motorcyclist and I understand the freedom of the open road. Westwood’s descriptions of Salisbury’s body and bike working as one are brilliant.

The story is tightly plotted and the world immersive. I read this book over a weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. It’s not action-packed and in your face science fiction. In fact, in the Acknowledgments, Westwood says:

This story pays homage the many groups that work against the cruelty of the bile and factory farming industries, including those tireless champions of the animals, the Voiceless team, and Animals Asia. This story is also for gender explorers everywhere: not fantasy. Not science fiction.

The Courier’s New Bicycle is a tremendous achievement.