Secrets of the Sea by Nicholas Shakespeare

‘There was one road into Wellington Point and one road out.’

Alex Dove has returned to (the fictional town of) Wellington Point on the east coast of Tasmania after twelve years in England. He was eleven years old when he was sent to school in England after his parents were killed in a car accident. Alex has inherited his parents’ unprofitable farm and his father’s collection of ships in bottles.

‘The weekend Alex met Merridy he had driven to Wellington Point to look for ice-cream sticks in the school rubbish tins.’

Merridy comes to Wellington Point with her own parents: her father in a wheelchair needing care, her mother there from a sense of duty. Merridy has abandoned her studies in Melbourne to help her parents. Merridy and Alex are drawn together. They marry and are determined to make a success of life on Alex’s farm with the family they intend to have. Merridy finds a flair for oyster farming, which helps relieve financial pressures.

But things do not go according to plan and they are already becoming strangers to each other when the sinking of a ship in a storm brings Kish into their lives. Kish is part of a semi-literate crew of young offenders serving on a replica brigantine as part of a rehabilitation programme. Though the young delinquent seems truculent and disturbed, the couple take him into their home, which allows Alex to ‘indulge the extravagant idea that he had plucked from the sea a child he never had’, while Merridy finds him reminiscent of her lost brother, Hector.

I loved the setting of this novel, on the east coast of Tasmania, near the town of Swansea. This is a beautiful part of Tasmania, rich in history and naturally beautiful. I envisaged Talbot’s Store as Morris’ Store in Swansea, with its views over the main road and across the bay. The story moved slowly at times, but I did not mind, until Kish entered the story. Kish’s presence jarred, for me, and while I kept reading, my interest waned.

I finished the novel, delighted by the description of Wellington Point and the surrounding country, and hoping that the future would be kinder for the main characters.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

The Vandemonian War by Nick Brodie

‘The secret history of Britain’s Tasmanian invasion.’

I read an article by Nick Brodie which led me indirectly to this book. I was curious. I grew up in Tasmania, and colonial history was rarely touched on during my education during the 1960s and early 1970s. The Tasmanian Aboriginals are all dead, we were told, the race is extinct. Questions about how and why were neither encouraged nor answered. I moved away from Tasmania in 1974 and have since learned more.

‘The Vandemonian War was the British Empire’s best kept secret. Invasion was called settlement. Ethnic cleansing was called conciliation. Genocide was naturalised as extinction. Even Van Diemen’s Land was renamed Tasmania.’

What had Nick Brodie discovered, and how does it change our understanding of history?

‘My discovery of the truth about the Vandemonian War started with a certain manuscript volume in the Tasmanian Archives and Heritage Office in Hobart. It is labelled ‘No7/Records relating to the Aboriginals’, and has the archival designation CSO1/1/320 (7878).  It comes from the records of the Colonial Secretary’s Office, and contains hundreds of pages of inbound correspondence only a tiny fraction of which has ever been previously examined, analysed or cited by historians.  These letters detail military and paramilitary operations against Aboriginal people in the interior of Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 1830s.’

Until I read this book, I had (mostly) believed that while individuals and small local groups had killed Aborigines, that the colonial government had tried (however ineffectually) to protect them. It is confronting to read that was not the case, that the military and paramilitary forces deliberately drove the Aboriginal peoples from the lands they had occupied for centuries. This was no accident.

I finished this book with very mixed feelings. It is never comfortable having to revisit what was taught as truth and is now exposed – via the colonial records of the time – as inaccurate and incomplete. Documented fact, not an issue of interpretation.

‘Unearthed after nearly two centuries of established history, the Vandemonian War allows us to see that a society can be led to do almost anything – and then come to believe it did not do it at all.’

Uncomfortable, but important reading.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Historic Tasmania Sketchbook by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry (text) Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips (drawings)

‘There is only one reason for Tasmania retaining so many splendid buildings: they have been lived in by people who appreciate them and are determined to preserve them.’

I have a copy of the 1977 edition of this book. Whenever I get homesick for Tasmania, I browse through the sketches and reacquaint myself with some of the magnificent nineteenth buildings I recognise. But it isn’t just sketches of buildings contained in this book, there’s a sketch of Kelly’s Steps between Salamanca Place and Battery Point, and of the iron hull of the ‘Otago’ (remember Joseph Conrad?) on the east bank of the Derwent.

I am pleased I was able to visit the Church of St John the Baptist (consecrated in 1850) last time I was in Buckland (page 58). And the Morris Store building (now housing the everyday IGA) in Swansea (page 54) is superb.

While some buildings are in private hands, others are part of the National Trust including Franklin House (Launceston); Entally (Hadspen)and Clarendon (Evandale). And a visit to Richmond would not be complete without walking through the historic village, over the bridge and up to St John’s Church in Richmond (built in 1836).

On each page, there is a reminder of Tasmania’s colonial past: from the prosperous estates and mansions owned by the wealthy to the buildings of Port Arthur associated with convict transportation. I walk along St John Street in Launceston, past St John’s Church (page 186) where my grandparents were married in 1918, past the Dorset Terrace (page 164) where I’d love to live.  Launceston also has many beautiful civic buildings, built during its prosperous past: the Albert Hall (page 150) (where I sat examinations during the early 1970s); the Town Hall (page 168) and the Custom House (page174).

The book is divided into four parts:

Nineteenth Century Tasmania

Hobart

Launceston

Port Arthur

Superb sketches by Max Angus, Frank Mather and Arthur Phillips are accompanied by text by Patsy Adam Smith and Joan Woodberry.

If you are interested in Tasmania’s colonial past, this book (if you can find a copy) is worth exploring.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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Launceston Municipal Transport 1911-1955 by Ian G Cooper

A snapshot of public transport in Launceston between 1911 and 1955

I confess. I bought a copy of this book because it contains (on page 121) a photograph of my maternal grandfather, C.W. Cameron. He was the motorman on the last official tram service in Launceston on 13 December 1952 and is pictured, with conductor M.R. Harvey. Although the trams were long gone by the time my family moved to Launceston in 1960, some of the tramlines were still in place.

As I flicked though the book, I recognised the trolley buses (which were still in use until 1968). And then I read the book from cover to cover, fascinated by the history of public transport in Launceston during this period and enjoying the glimpse into the past provided by the photographs. There is technical detail of the various trams and buses, photographs of different tickets used, and details of the routes used.

The book also mentions the  Launceston Tramway Museum which is well worth visiting.

Those interested in technical detail will find this book interesting, as will those interested in the history of public transport.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2021

Wild Orchard by Isabel Dick

‘If Harriat Bracken on that fine April morning in the year 1840 had turned to the left and gone, as she had been bidden to do, straight up to her bedroom, all that is recorded here would never have happened.’

Harriat ‘Harry’ Bracken did not do as she was bidden, and instead met ‘Jan’ Halifax, a young man who had been sent to England from Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) to learn about growing hops. Harriat, the spirited daughter of a clergyman, falls in love. Jan is soon to return home to Van Diemen’s Land and he and Harriat marry, with her parents’ permission, after a very quick courtship.

Harriat leaves behind a conventional, genteel family, one in which class is important, to travel to the colonial frontier of Van Diemen’s Land. She knows nothing about Van Diemen’s Land, but she loves Jan and would follow him anywhere.  And 17-year-old Harry and 20-year-old Jan, married, eventually arrive in Hobart. They do not stay there long, moving quickly to the land that Jan’s father has left to him when he turns twenty-one.

What follows is a heart-warming tale of survival against the odds, of triumph against adversity, of the power of friendship. Harry may not know much about living in the bush without assistance, but she quickly learns. She contends with an assigned servant who becomes a danger to her and her new-born child, she makes friends with the other settlers who live near by and she supports Jan. Jan has his own tribulations: family members who have taken his property require him to relocate to Hobart for a while.

Ms Dick ‘s novel touches briefly on the dispossession of the Indigenous occupants.  She also has Harry meeting one of Tasmania’s more infamous bushrangers, Martin Cash. The novel ends as the Halifaxes are on the path to success. They complement each other perfectly, they are surrounded by good neighbours, and the land is full of promise.

This novel was published in 1946, and while it glosses over some of the negative aspects of colonial settlement, it does not ignore them. It is an easy, heart-warming read, which left me wondering what might happen next.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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On the Town by Dianne J.E Cassidy

‘Life as a prostitute in Launceston was nothing if not eventful.’

In her preface, Ms Cassidy writes: ‘This book does not, and cannot, in any way mention all of the brothels and prostitutes operating in Launceston in the 1800s. It merely tries to bring to light some of the more notorious characters living at that time so that their lives and tales are not lost to history.’

Ms Cassidy draws on public records (usually from newspaper accounts) to write about the experiences of women who ‘lived on the town’ in nineteenth century Launceston. This is a part of Tasmanian history about which I know little, in part because most accounts of the time focus on the historically well-known figures. Newspaper accounts only provide a partial story, of course, but those records have enabled Ms Cassidy to provide a social history of the lives and times of some of the women involved. I found the photographs interesting as well: some of the buildings that formerly housed brothels still exist.

As I read through Ms Cassidy’s book, I was drawn to parallels with elements of Dickensian London: the poor trying to survive however they could; violence; and the role of alcohol. And, of course, the moralistic judgments made.

This book is a valuable addition to the history of Launceston, especially as it covers people and events generally ignored in historical accounts.  And when I next return to Launceston, I will visit some of the graves at Carr Villa, and I will walk around central Launceston in the streets where some of these women walked.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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In Search of Hobart by Peter Timms

I’m feeling homesick for Tasmania. I had a trip planned ‘home’ for October but then COVID-19 happened and our travel plans were shelved. Back in February 2013, I wrote this review. Since then I’ve been to Hobart a few times, stayed at Battery Point, walked around the inner city, visited some of the sights and enjoyed (always) the Salamanca Market.

‘What a place to be!’

Hobart, the state capital of Tasmania, is Australia’s smallest, second oldest and most southerly capital city. Greater Hobart had a population of 216,276 in 2011, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics. As a consequence of its geographic setting, it’s both a long narrow city and a beautiful one. Divided by the Derwent River and overlooked by Mount Wellington, Hobart has a character all of its own.

In this book, Peter Timms explores the history of Hobart from the settlement at Sullivan’s Cove in 1804 to the present. This is less a history than it is a commentary on the influences that have shaped both Tasmania and Hobart (both good and bad) and what it is like to live in Hobart.

‘Tasmania, along with Outer Mongolia and Timbuktu, has long been seen a symbol of remoteness, whether of the mysterious, the enticing or the cruelly comic kind.’

While Tasmania is comparatively less remote these days because travel by both sea and air is less expensive than it was in the past, it is still an island some 240 kilometres (at its narrowest point) from the Australian mainland. Bass Strait can be both a physical and a psychical barrier to travel.

‘Hobart’s great paradox is that most of what people admire about it today is the result of poverty in the past.’

How true: many of Hobart’s public buildings would have been replaced in larger cities, which would be a great shame. Many of the small cottages of the 19th century are now regarded as highly desirable residences. And yet, there is a clash between old and new, and some of the new buildings are not at all sympathetic to their surroundings.


Hobart has the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and the University of Tasmania (one of Australia’s Sandstone Universities founded in 1890). Hobart also has Constitution Dock where the Sydney to Hobart Yacht Race ends each year, the amazing Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) and a couple of terrific independent bookstores.

This is more an introduction to Hobart than it is a guidebook. It gives context and explanation rather than grid references and ratings. Peter Timms touches on Hobart’s suburban sprawl, and the problems created in some areas where public housing is concentrated.

I found the book very interesting. The narrative is supported by anecdotes and interviews. Although I grew up in Tasmania, like many from the north of the island I spent very little time in the south. Hobart was seen as the seat of government, a source of bureaucratic interference, a place to be avoided rather than enjoyed. I visited Hobart briefly last year, and this book confirms what that visit hinted: I need to spend more time in Hobart both exploring the past and enjoying the present. It’s not the city I remembered from the 1970s: it’s a more diverse and interesting place.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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

#AWW2020

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The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

‘Three quite different women, three different stories.’

From Flinders Island in 1840, to London and then to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), this novel follows the life of three exiled women.  We first meet Mathinna, an orphaned Indigenous girl ‘adopted’ by Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin.  We then meet Evangeline, pregnant, convicted of stealing and imprisoned in Newgate.  On board the prison ship Medea transporting her to Van Diemen’s Land, Evangeline meets Hazel, a Scots teenager, who has also been transported for theft.

Three quite different women, three different stories.  Evangeline and Hazel are fictional characters, Mathinna is real. Each has been removed from the world she is familiar with.  How will each of them manage?  And what about Evangeline’s child?

Christina Baker Kline’s depiction of Newgate prison, of life on a prison transport and the female factory in Van Diemen’s Land is consistent with other accounts I have read.  Evangeline and Hazel are both representative (at least in part) of women convicted and transported.  Mathinna’s story (and I have read several different accounts) is a sad reflection on the treatment of Indigenous Tasmanians.  Those who read this novel will, if they are so tempted, find a list of additional books and sources to explore.  I have read a number of these books.

If you enjoy historical fiction set during the nineteenth century and have an interest in Tasmania’s colonial past, you may enjoy this novel.  If you are looking for more information about the history and human impact of transportation, you will find several sources to explore.  And, if you ever have an opportunity to view Thomas Bock’s painting of Mathinna, look into those eyes and see a young woman trapped between two worlds.  A tragedy.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Allison & Busby for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Bluffs by Kyle Perry

‘The legend said that if you didn’t see his face, he wouldn’t take you.’

The Great Western Tiers of Tasmania’s Central Highlands provide an atmospheric setting for this intriguing novel.  A group of teenage girls from Limestone Creek go missing while on a school camp.  The teacher accompanying the girls, Eliza Ellis, was knocked unconscious.  When she is found, she has only limited memories of what happened, and she saw no-one.  The community is concerned: twenty-five years earlier six girls went missing in that same area.  Those disappearances gave rise to a legend, ‘The Hungry Man’:

‘Up in the hills he hides and kills.

Down in the caves, he hides and waits.

The Hungry Man, who likes little girls,

with their pretty faces and pretty curls.’

Detective Con Badenhorst is sent from Launceston to investigate.  The local police have their own views about who might be responsible.  Jasmine Murphy is one of the missing students, and her father (the town’s local drug dealer) becomes a suspect. 

While one early chapter gives Jasmine’s viewpoint, before she disappears, the story unfolds through three alternating viewpoints: Eliza Ellis, Detective Con Badenhorst, and Jasmine’s father, Jordan Murphy.

How can Con Badenhorst determine what is rumour and what is truth?  And in the meantime, the weather in the mountain bluffs hampers the search.  The four missing girls were friends, but each of them had secrets.

‘Not knowing each other’s secrets is the only reason we can all be friends.’

Con Badenhorst hopes that the girls will turn up, that they are just missing.  He has memories of a case he worked in Sydney, a case that still haunts him. 

And then a body is found at the bottom of a cliff.

Eliza Ellis has issues of her own, as does Jordan Murphy.  He keeps being implicated in the disappearance, and vigilantes (fuelled by the actions of one of the local police) are circling.

The sister of one of the missing girls, a social media star, keeps uploading posts on her YouTube site.  These calculated and partisan posts further fuel both community and media frenzy.

‘Just a child.  What a world we live in now, that a child with a camera can cause all of this carnage.’

What happened on the bluffs?  And where are the other girls?

Mr Perry introduces several different issues into this novel including dysfunctional relationships, bullying, and the power of social media.  He also touches on Tasmania’s uncomfortable past in relation to indigenous people.  All this set in an insular community: judgemental and suspicious of outsiders.

I kept reading, keen to find out how it would end, trying to work out what had happened.  While a couple of aspects of the police investigation raised my eyebrows, the story held my attention from beginning to end.  An accomplished debut.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AussieAuthor2020