Good Indian Daughter by Ruhi Lee

‘Our house was double-brick basket of stone fruit.’

Ruhi knows that she has fallen short of her parents’ expectations. For Ruhi, to be a ‘good Indian daughter’ means being someone completely different, negotiating a minefield of cultural expectations and being able to reconcile a lifetime’s full of conflicting messages. Ruhi has muddled through. But when she marries and becomes pregnant, Ruhi is overwhelmed by the emotional baggage she is carrying. Ruhi decided to face the past before her baby is born.

Ruhi and her parents emigrated from India to Melbourne, Australia when Ruhi was young. Like many other emigrants, Ruhi’s parents have made this momentous decision to provide a better life for their children. But the weight of these expectations combined with cultural differences can be a huge burden for any child, and Ruhi’s self-esteem is shattered.

Can Ruhi find herself if she revisits the past? Can her parents accept her for who she is rather than their idealised view of who she should be and rejecting her differences?

This is a well-written brutally honest account of reclaiming a life battered by the expectations of others. I think many readers from a variety of backgrounds will be able to relate to Ruhi’s journey. Yes, it is complicated by cultural issues but the underlying theme of ‘never feeling good enough’ is one many will understand.

I felt sorry for both Ruhi and her parents. Moving from one country to another can unsettle the strongest of families. Add in cultural differences and expectations, and the picture becomes more complex. I admire Ruhi for undertaking the journey to reclaim her life and hope that her entire family learns (and benefits) from the journey.

Well worth reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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We Were Not Men by Campbell Mattinson

Imagine the heartbreak, the pain, the dislocation. Nine-year-old twins, Jon and Eden Hardacre are orphaned in a terrible car accident in which they are both injured. Jon tells us their story as they grow up with their step-grandma Bobbie, who is still grieving her own loss – the death of their grandfather. The boys compete with each other at swimming, fall in love with the same girl, and negotiate the shoals of life. The newly configured family moves between Bobbie’s farm at Flowerdale and the boy’s suburban home in Newport, Victoria. It is a challenging read, especially at the beginning because we are confined to Jon’s unfiltered nine-year-old view of what happens. Jon’s view gradually expands, and he (and we) appreciate that life is more complex, that relationships are not always straightforward.

I was drawn into this story, imagining a nine-year-old view of such a tragedy, and admiring the resilience of Jon, Eden, and Bobbie as they found a way ahead, through various challenges. If we live, we learn. Nothing stays the same. Life goes on.

Mr Mattinson brings his characters to life, especially Jon and Bobbie, and this is a story that will stay with me for a long time.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Those Hamilton Sisters by Averil Kenny

‘What does the future hold?’

Three sisters, orphaned after their mother’s death, arrive in Noah Vale, in tropical Queensland, where their aunt lives. It is 1955, and the girls are about to encounter all the gossip and small-minded prejudice that their mother Esther fled from when pregnant, over 20 years earlier. Sonnet (20), Fable (12) and Novella (known as Plum) (3) were all born out of wedlock. Their aunt Olive wants to help, but Sonnet is fiercely independent of herself and her sisters.

The story unfolds over the next ten years with each of the sisters overcoming the legacy of prejudice to find their own place in the world. Ms Kenny brings her characters to life, especially Sonnet and Fable. Gradually we learn more about their mother Esther, about her hopes and ambitions for herself and for her daughters. I finished the novel wanting more, especially as Plum’s journey to adulthood was just beginning. I really enjoyed this novel, with its wonderful descriptions of place and the clear-eyed depiction of the challenges that the sisters faced, trying to make their own ways in a town where they were judged according to the past.

An accomplished debut novel.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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A Home Like Ours by Fiona Lowe

Publication date 3/3/2021

‘Holding on means there’s still hope.’

The small (fictional) town of Boolanga provides the setting for Ms Lowe’s thoughtful and thought-provoking novel exploring prejudice and privilege. Helen, in her last fifties, has experienced tragedy, homelessness and employment-related ageism. Jade, a teenaged mother, is dealing with a frequently absent boyfriend who sees parenting their baby son Milo as Jade’s responsibility as well as with judgemental locals. Tara is struggling. She is juggling the demands of two small children and the family business and is concerned that her husband Jon is no longer interested in their marriage.

Boolanga has a community garden, but some of the locals want to keep that garden exclusive. Recent migrants are excluded. Others are convinced that ‘the Africans’ are responsible for the town’s recent crime wave. Through the stories of these three quite different women, Ms Lowe shines a light on the different ways people are displaced and regarded as ‘others’.  While Helen, Tara, and Jade each must adapt to changed circumstances, they each learn to accept help without being defensive and to accept difference without automatically rejecting it.

Once again, Ms Lowe creates three-dimensional characters who tackle some difficult contemporary issues. And, in doing so, she invites the reader to think about their own attitudes and responses.

I loved this novel.

Note: My thanks to Better Reading Preview for an ARC.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Girl A by Abigail Dean

‘You don’t know me, but you’ve seen my face.’

Alexandra Gracie, now a successful lawyer based in New York, tries to keep her family in the background.  As ‘Girl A’, she is the one who escaped her family home, the ‘House of Horrors’, where she and her siblings were neglected and abused.  But the death of her mother in prison requires Alexandra to return to the UK to deal with her mother’s estate.

As I read this novel, I was overwhelmed by questions about how abuse victims can be invisible for so long and what drives people to become abusers.  I thought that Ms Dean managed a fine balance in the novel.  She was able to convey the impact of abuse without an overload of graphic detail. For me, the central question became: how do children who survive such horrific abuse function as adults?  There were once seven siblings.  Those who survived have difficult relationships with themselves, with each other and with outsiders.  To face the future, Alexandra must revisit the past. She also needs to negotiate with her siblings.  Will they agree to her plan for the family home?  I think that Ms Dean has created a masterpiece peopled with well-developed characters.   It is difficult to read and unbearably sad in places.  I finished the novel, hoping for a better future but knowing that the past will always be present.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Death Leaves the Station by Alexander Thorpe

‘The truth will not be hidden forever.  If you do not seek it, it will seek you.’

On night, in the summer of 1927 at Halfwell Station in the wheatbelt of Western Australia, eighteen-year-old Mariana Harris encounters two strangers.  The first is a corpse that Mariana encounters during her solitary midnight walk admiring the skies, the second is a nameless friar who calls into the station.  But the corpse has disappeared by the time Mariana takes the friar to it, although bloodstained stones remain.  The police are called in.  Mariana and the friar join the search, together with the powerfully moustachioed Detective Sergeant Arnold Parkes and Cooper the tracker.  Their search (which will include Mariana’s third trip in a car) will take them from the goldfields to the city and will uncover several secrets.  This is a journey through a racist Australia, where the treatment of Cooper (and others) is particularly uncomfortable.  Who does the corpse belong to, who moved it and to where?

Mr Thorpe combines an interesting cast of characters and an intriguing mystery (or two).  I enjoyed this novel, a comparatively quick read at just under 200 pages.

‘A slow understanding spread throughout the room.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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