The Survivors by Jane Harper

‘She could – almost – have been one of The Survivors.’

Kieran Elliott, his partner Mia and their daughter Audrey return to the small Tasmanian coastal town of Evelyn Bay to help Kieran’s mother Verity pack the family home for a move.  Kieran’s father, Brian has dementia and needs nursing home care.

Returning to Evelyn Bay is not easy for Kieran.  His brother Finn and another man died here in a storm twelve years ago.  A girl went missing that same day.  Tough memories for Kieran, especially as some blame him for the men’s deaths.

 A body is discovered on the beach.  The body of a young woman working temporarily in Evelyn Bay.  Who killed her, and why?  Who was the last person to see her alive? This new tragedy brings memories of the old tragedy to the surface.  And Kieran is struggling with his own memories, with the guilt he feels over the death of his brother, and responsibility for his parents’ grief which is reinforced when his father sometimes mistakes him for his brother.

Ms Harper brings the setting to life: the wildness of the Tasmanian coastal weather, the insularity and divided opinion of a small community under stress.  The characters are well-drawn, their grievances and challenges are real. The current investigation raises questions about the old tragedy.  And the conclusion took me by surprise.

This is Ms Harper’s fourth novel: I’ve enjoyed them all, but this is my favourite.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Lowitja – The authorised biography of Lowitja O’Donoghue by Stuart Rintoul

‘I’ll show you.’

In September 1934, two-year-old Lowitja O’Donoghue was taken by her white father Tom O’Donoghue from her ‘full-blood’ Pitjantjatjara mother, Lily, and deposited in the Colebrook ‘half-caste’ mission. In 1945, Lily travelled hundreds of kilometres from Oodnadatta to Port Augusta where she thought that she might find her five removed children.  They were not there.

The Colebrook home moved, over time, from central Australia to the outskirts of Adelaide.  Each move took the children further away from their communities.  Family ties were destroyed as the mission set out to turn ‘savages’ into Christians.  Lowitja (then called Lois) was told, as she left the mission to take up a position as a domestic servant on a sheep station, that she soon be pregnant and amount to nothing.  Well, she certainly proved that statement be wrong!

In this thoughtful biography, Mr Rintoul takes us through Ms O’Donoghue’s life.  Despite initial opposition, Ms O’Donoghue trained as a nurse at the Royal Adelaide Hospital, and in 1959 she became South Australia’s first Aboriginal nursing sister.  She then spent some time in India but returned to Australia and became involved in Aboriginal politics leading up to the 1967 referendum. She joined the public service and rose through the ranks.  In 1989, she was chosen to the Chair of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission.  And in that role, she was one of the key players in the negotiations that shaped the Keating government’s native title legislation after the High Court’s Mabo decision in 1992.

What comes across in this moving account of a life well lived, is Ms Donoghue’s commitment to Aboriginal people.  An articulate, compassionate woman who faced opposition from those who wanted more radical change more quickly as well as those who resisted any change at all.  A woman who knew the history of her people, who had directly experienced dispossession.  A woman who, when she met her mother Lily, had no shared language. 

And then, in 2001, there was a controversy about whether Ms O’Donoghue was a ‘stolen child’.  I mention this distressing controversy only because it was a truly despicable example of a journalistic ‘beat-up’.

In this biography, Mr Rintoul traces the story of a remarkable woman, a great Australian and an inspirational role model. 

But, as Ms O’Donoghue says:

‘I am sometimes identified as one of the “success stories” of the policies of removal of Aboriginal children. But for much of my childhood I was deeply unhappy. I feel I had been deprived of love and the ability to love in return. Like Lily, my mother, I felt totally powerless. And I think this is where the seeds of my commitment to human rights and social justice were sown.’

Strongly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Mother Tongue by Joyce Kornblatt

‘When you were three days old, I took you from the newborn nursery in Mercy Hospital, Pittsburgh, in America.’

In middle age, Nella Pine learns that she is not who she thought she was.  She grew up, thinking she was the daughter of Eve Gilbert, a widow who had left her grief behind in the USA to establish a new life in Australia.  But when Eve dies, she finds a letter.  Eve Gilbert was a nurse, called Ruth Miller, who stole baby Naomi from the newborn nursery and fled to Australia.

Why?  What can Nella do with this information?  Can she find her birth family?  Where does she fit? What about baby Naomi’s family in Pittsburgh?

So many questions to consider while reading this contemplative short novel.  What would Nella’s life have been, if she had grown up with her sister Leah and her parents Deborah and Paul?  What compelled Ruth to take Naomi and change both their identities?

There are other stories woven through this narrative: Alex (once Nella’s husband) with his own experience of lost identity; Leah who always believed that Naomi would make contact; and Deborah whose world changed forever when Naomi was stolen.

I finished this book wondering about the different paths that lives can take.  The shocking theft of one child, the forced adoption of another.  The ripple effect of an action on so many lives.  How do we know who we are, how do we find our place in the world?  What is the balance between nature and nurture?

This is a novel I will reread.  It is an extraordinary story, beautifully presented, full of complex questions.

‘You give each other the stories.  They haven’t been lost.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Songwoman by Ilka Tampke (Skin#2)

‘I had a title to bear.  I had a war to win.’

Set in Iron-Age Britain, Ailia of Caer Cad has been in a self-imposed exile since her village was destroyed by the Romans.  But she realises that she has a role to play if the free tribes of Albion are to resist the Roman attack and retain their ties to the land.  Ailia is the Kendra of Albion, and after ending her exile, she seeks out the chieftain Caradog.

Ailia arrives at Llanmelin as a Journeywoman, but her minimal training with the Mothers has not equipped her to handle Caradog’s Journeyman, Prydd.  Prydd barely tolerates Ailia, while Caradog is not initially interested in her advice.  But when Ailia hears Caradog’s Songman, Rhain, she realises that she may have more influence as a Songwoman.

‘Whatever story we remember will determine what endures.  This is your purpose.  There is no other.’

Those of us who studied history know how this will end in fact, but in this fiction, I was free to dream.  Ailia has difficult choices to make.  With a touch of fantasy, Ms Tampke brings Iron-Age Britain to life.  I was swept up in the story and have added ‘Skin’ to my reading list.

‘They could not take our songs.’

Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Searching for Charlotte by Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell

‘Who is Charlotte?’

In this book, sisters Kate Forsyth and Belinda Murrell set out to learn more about their great-great-great-great grandmother Charlotte de Waring Atkinson (1796-1867).  The sisters had heard enthralling stories about Charlotte and her family: stories that had passed through the generations for over 150 years.  Surely, along the way and in the telling, these stories had become romanticised, embellished, and exaggerated.  Isn’t that the way of most oral family history?

When I first heard about this book I was intrigued.  I had never heard of Charlotte or her book: ‘A Mother’s Offering to Her Children by a Lady Long Resident in New South Wales’ (published in 1841).  It was the first children’s book to be published in Australia and was a collection of instructional stories arranged in the form of a dialogue between a mother and her four children.  

Part biography, part personal journey, part re-discovery of family history, this book serves (at least) two purposes.  First, to try to find out more about Charlotte the woman, who sailed to New South Wales in 1826 to take up a position as a governess,  and secondly to try to provide context for Charlotte the author.

As I read this book, I was delighted by the way in which Belinda and Kate were able to work together and were able to travel with their own daughters, to learn more about their family history.  Charlotte met several challenges in her life, including being widowed early with small children, making a disastrous second marriage, having to fight to retain her children.  This is a very personal journey through nineteenth century attitudes, customs, values, and law. 

While the authors (and readers) can only speculate about some of Charlotte’s choices, she comes across as determined to do the best she could to look after the interests of her children and to equip them for adult life.  Certainly, creativity seems to have passed through her descendants.

This is not a straight biography, nor is it purely fictional.  It is a blend of fact, of imagination, of impressions gained by research and travel.  As Kate writes: ‘We are taking historical fact and framing it within our own personal lives, creating what might be called a hybrid memoir.’

I enjoyed the book and I imagine I would have enjoyed it even more if I was a family member.  And I have discovered that ‘A Mother’s Offering to Her Children’ is available as a digital text through the University of Sydney Library.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Wreck by Meg Keneally

‘Talk is where everything starts.  And they know it.’

A peaceful rebellion in Manchester, England in 1819 leave Sarah McCaffrey and her brother Sam orphaned.  They move to London where their involvement in a failed rebellion in 1820 leads to Sam being hanged for high treason and Sarah fleeing for her life.  Sarah finds herself aboard the Serpent bound for New South Wales.

‘She was alone, at the edge of everything.’

But when the Serpent is wrecked off the Gap, Sarah is the only survivor.  She awakens in the infirmary and, as Sarah Marin, starts a new life.  Molly Thistle, ex-convict, and local entrepreneur employs Sarah.  And Sarah soon becomes an important part of Molly Thistle’s empire.  However, Sarah’s past threatens to catch up with her.

Ms Keneally has drawn from historic figures and events to create this engrossing tale of fiction, including the Peterloo Massacre (Manchester 1819) and the wreck of the Dunbar(in 1857).  Sarah is idealistic, courageous, and strong.  In New South Wales, her idealism is tempered by realism as she comes to realise that rebellion is not the only way to effect social change.

I enjoyed this novel, with its well-defined characters and focus, both in the UK and in New South Wales, on a range of early 19th century social issues.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Dancing in My Dreams: Confronting the Spectre of Polio by Kerry Highley

‘Most Australians born before 1960 can remember the widespread vaccination campaigns that were initiated against polio with first the Salk, then Sabin vaccines.’

I do remember the vaccination campaigns against polio, I remember standing in a queue in Launceston, Tasmania with my father and my brother to receive the Salk vaccine.  This memory sticks in my mind: my father was not a man who did much standing, and he was never a man who enjoyed queuing.  My father was a polio survivor.  He contracted the virus in 1951, not long after his 21st birthday.  He struggled to walk again, and he never recovered the strength he lost.

Before I read this book, I was aware of the work of Sister Elizabeth Kenny.  She was viewed as a hero in my home: treatment based on her methods is what got my father walking.  But I did not know her methods were considered controversial.  I read with interest (and sadness) about the ‘more orthodox’ methods used and supported by Dr Jean Macnamara in which limbs were not mobilised.  I read about the resistance Sister Elizabeth Kenny received to her methods (especially in Australia), and I read about the backgrounds of both women. 

‘Elizabeth Kenny shook the complacency of the medical establishment which firmly believed that muscles affected by the poliovirus remained frail and vulnerable for a lengthy period , and that gentle movement of limbs in the early stages of paralysis was dangerous.’

Many of those who survived polio were left with degrees of disability: June Middleton in Victoria, Australia (1926 – 2009) spent more than 60 years in an iron lung, while many survivors who walked did so with the aid of calipers.   The world was even less accommodating of disability then than it is now.

I also read about the development of the Salk and Sabin vaccines.  And was reminded of the need for vaccine development ‘to hasten slowly’ when reading about a defective vaccine in the USA in 1955 which resulted in 40 000 cases of polio, leaving 200 children with varying degrees of paralysis and killing 10.  I hope that those working on a vaccine for COVID-19 are mindful of these lessons.

While this is a book about a particular disease and the people who suffered from it, there are lessons relevant to all pandemics.  Polio vaccination remains as important today as it did when my brother, father and I queued in Launceston sixty years ago.

‘There remains no cure for polio.’

My thanks to Janine Rizzetti whose review of this book led me to read it. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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In the Evil Day by Peter Temple

‘There was nothing under truth, beyond truth.’

Three cities.  Three characters.  A secret. 

In Johannesburg, Con Niemand an ex-soldier and mercenary, comes across evidence of a terrible secret while working on a security detail.  In Hamburg, John Anselm is trying to escape his memories of foreign war zones while working for a surveillance firm.  In London, Caroline Wishart calls herself an exposé journalist, and is looking for her next big story.  Their lives will be drawn together.  Niemand thinks he has found something worth selling.  But it is something others will kill for, something that has the power to destroy reputations and possibly to bring down governments.  Wishart needs to try to verify what Niemand wants to sell.  And Anselm needs to conquer his demons.

‘Dead.  How many people in this unfathomable business were dead.’

This is a complicated story of suspense, and it requires concentration.  There is plenty of action but occasionally things slow down just enough for the reader to catch their breath and process the story. There are unexpected twists and turns.  Information is dangerous, as are memories.  And everyone is being watched.  This is not a light read but it is a rewarding one.

If you enjoy complicated plots and complex characters, I can recommend this.

Peter Temple (1946-2018) left behind nine completed novels and I am slowly working my way through reading some (the Jack Irish novels) and rereading the rest.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville

‘Dearest, he said, and I was immediately wary. ‘

In this novel, Ms Grenville reimagines aspects of the life of Elizabeth Macarthur, the wife of John Macarthur.  In her reimagination, Ms Grenville discovers a secret memoir written by Elizabeth Macarthur, one which brings her out of the shadows.

First, a few facts.  Elizabeth Macarthur (1766-1850) was born on 14 August 1766 in Devon, England, daughter of Richard Veale, farmer, and his wife Grace.  She married John Macarthur in October 1788.  In June 1789 he joined the New South Wales Corps and Elizabeth and their son Edward (born in March 1789) accompanied him when he sailed to take up his position in the colony.  Mrs Macarthur’s letters to her family written during the journey to New South Wales are one of the outstanding records of early voyages on convict transports.  John Macarthur (c1767-1834), soldier, entrepreneur and pastoralist was a prominent figure in colonial Australia.

Around these facts (and others) Ms Grenville portrays Elizabeth Macarthur as a passionate woman who learns how to manage marriage to an opinionated and ruthless bully.

‘As I copied out his words I noticed that the word we never appeared.  In Mr Macarthur’s lonely cosmology, there was no such pronoun.  Only me, myself, I.’

While I read this novel and enjoyed the imagined Elizabeth Macarthur’s view of and opinions about the role of women and colonial settlement, aspects made me uneasy.  How many people will read this novel and believe it is fact instead of fiction, despite Ms Grenville’s disclaimer?  Despite my unease, I enjoyed the opportunity to view colonial settlement through a different perspective.

‘Down beside the river I had a spot of my own, where now and then I could slip out of the skin of Mrs John Macarthur.  It was screened by bushes that framed a view up and down the stream: another airy room made of leaves.’

I suspect that the real Mrs John Macarthur will always remain elusive.  We know of her from her letters, written within the strictures of the society of the time.  But the person behind the letters?  Ms Grenville presents us with some interesting possibilities.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Life Worth Living by Louise Guy

‘Identical twins, two very different women.’

Leah and Eve are identical twins, living in Melbourne.  Leah has been in a relationship with Grant for six years: they are about to have a celebratory anniversary dinner, and Leah is expecting a proposal.  But Grant breaks off their relationship without explanation.  Leah is devastated. And her job is not going so well either.

Eve is married to Sean and has identical twin daughters: Harriet and Ava. But Eve is dissatisfied.  She is strict with her daughters, distant from Sean, and spending less and less time with her family.

Eve convinces Leah to attend her best friend’s 40th birthday party in the Dandenong Ranges.  It is a costume party, and the two of them are identically dressed.  But neither of them will make it to the party, and lives will be changed forever.

A spur of the moment decision leads to secrets.  And secrets have a way of snowballing and damaging those they are intended to protect.

There are a couple of improbable twists in this novel, but I became some engrossed in the story I really did not care.  The main characters are well developed, and I kept reading wanting to know how it would end.  I finished the novel satisfied.

This is the first novel I have read by Ms Guy.  I will add her others to my reading list.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Amazon Publishing UK for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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