Esther, ‘the extraordinary true story of the First Fleet girl who became the First Lady of the colony,’ is about one of those largely unknown figures from Australia’s past. When told well, stories such as this can bring our history to life.
This meticulously researched account, written in narrative non-fiction style, recreates the conditions of London in the late eighteenth century, the journey of the First Fleet ship Lady Penrhyn, the stark reality of the first years of the fledgling English colony perched on the edge of the world – all from the perspective of a young Jewish woman, Esther Abrahams (also known as Esther Julian). She was just sixteen and pregnant when convicted of the theft of some lace and sentenced to transportation to NSW. On arrival she became servant to First Lieutenant George Johnston of the British Marines. Together they spent a short period on Norfolk Island before returning to Sydney. She bore him children and along with her own young daughter Rosanna, they made a life together in Sydney.
Interwoven with her story are characters from the fledgling British colony (Watkin Tench, Major Ross, Captain Arthur Phillip, D’arcy Wentworth, the Macarthurs, and Lachlan Macquarie among others) and Indigenous people such as Bennelong and his wife Barangaroo, Arabanoo and Colbee.
Esther was witness to the dramatic events that played out in the early colony. The near starvation of the first years, the brutality of English punishments, the deaths of so many of the Dharug around Sydney Cove due to disease (very likely smallpox), the incredible escape of Mary Bryant with her husband, small children and a boatload of other convicts, the Rum Rebellion that removed the unlikable Governor Bligh from office. These were formative events that shaped the future nation of Australia. For me, seeing them through Esther’s eyes brought them to vivid life.
But it is Esther’s story that is most remarkable. During the course of her life she moved from the shame and powerlessness of life as a convict, to become the wife of the most powerful man in the colony, after George Johnston led the Rum Rebellion and became for a brief time, Lieutenant-Governor of NSW. In doing so she had to navigate the many perils of convict life, maintaining her dignity in the face of a system that seemed determined to strip it away and later, enduring the entrenched elitist attitudes of those who saw convict beginnings as a stain on the colony. Esther proved her worth by raising her family, managing Johnson’s large agricultural estate at Annandale in Sydney’s west, and earning respect from some of the most influential people in the colony.
I very much enjoyed learning about Esther. Jessica North tells the stories of the early years of Australia in a vivid new way. It’s an absorbing and accessible history read.
In the past year I have read around 53 books. This year, for the first time, I tried to make a record of each book I read (or in the case of audiobooks, listened to). However I do have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve inadvertently left a few off the list.
Of the 53 titles I did record, 39 were by Australian authors, and of those, 32 were by Australian women. No doubt this is at least partly due to my natural lean toward reading books by women, and also my commitment to reviewing books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
Some of the books on my list this year were read for the book group I belong to, others for research and background for my own writing project, and the rest were books recommended or just ones that held an interest for me. As usual for me, the majority were fiction with a few nonfiction titles in the mix.
So, what were my standout reads for 2019?
For surprise value, The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein tops the list.
Fled by Meg Keneally, The Paris Savages by Katherine Johnson and
Tidelands by Philippa Gregory, share my historical interest prize.
For sheer fun and imagination, Nevermore by Jessica Townsend
Crime titles I loved: The rules of backyard cricket and On the Java Ridge, both by Jock Serong.
Intriguing, inspirational and engrossing memoir: Educated by Tara Westover, Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie and The Girls by Chloe Hooper: four very different stories told in unique voices.
And my nonfiction pick is Esther by Jessica North
Oh, it’s hard to choose a few favourites from a long list of books read. A bit like choosing a favourite chocolate! There were so many great books this year.
What’s on my To Be Read list for 2020?
I plan to keep reading and reviewing plenty of books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.
I’ll read twelve titles for my book group (one choice for each of the group members).
I’ll no doubt get through plenty of historical fiction, as I always like a good portion of historical fiction in my reading diet. I believe Sulari Gentill and Pamela Freeman both have new historical fiction titles to be released in 2020 so I look forward to those.
And I’m sure that a few crime books will land on my TBR pile, too.
And now, to you: what have been your stand-out titles for 2019? Let me know in the comments below (I love sharing fave book lists)
And your TBR list: do you have a pile ready for holiday reading or to get started on in the New Year?
Whatever direction your choices take you, I wish you a happy new reading year and hope that through books, you’ll discover new places, different times and interesting people.
I’m fascinated by the world of book design. I’m not a designer, nor is any part of me artistic, but I am very admiring of the beauty and power of a good book cover and design. Similarly, I love book titles: the way a few words (or sometimes just one word) can sum up a book’s essence, it’s very heart. Anyone who has struggled with the seemingly insurmountable challenge of writing a book synopsis – summarising a whole novel in 500 words, give or take – will know what I mean when I say that the ability to choose just the right title for a work is one to be admired.
Lately I’ve noticed some interesting trends in both book design and title choice.
Firstly, design. I’m focusing here on two main genres – historical fiction and contemporary fiction. Not crime, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, thrillers. These genres have their own very distinct styles and typical cover images and colours. Browse a book store or library shelves for a while and you’ll see this.
A current trend for historical/contemporary fiction of the kind that I read – typically by women authors, many Australian ones – is for covers redolent with gorgeous flower motifs. Here are a few examples:
Aren’t they beautiful? I’ve not read Tess Woods’ Love and Other Battles or Kayte Nunn’s The Forgotten Letters of Esther Durrant as yet, but I can speak to the other two as being lovely novels inside their lovely covers. These are good examples of the trend for flower-adorned covers. It is definitely a ‘thing’ right now, and one which I am enjoying. I love these kinds of cover images and the beautiful design features which often continue right throughout the novels.
Now to book titles. A trend I’m noticing here is the tendency for titles to say something about a protagonist in terms of either their own profession/occupation, or that of a family member. Examples of this are:
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton (this one also belongs in the ‘beautiful cover design’ category – see image below)
The Post Mistress by Alison Stuart
The French Photographer by Natasha Lester
The ZooKeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman
The Lighthouse Keeper’s Daughter by Hazel Gaynor
The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn (another ‘lovely cover’ winner)
The Orchardist’s Daughter by Diane Ackerman
The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I don’t know the reason for these trends. Publishers and editors have a major say in how a book is styled and what it is called. Most probably these are fashions, and fashions come and go: remember a while ago when it seemed like every second book published had ‘girl’ in its title? (Gone Girl, Girl on the Page, Girl in the Window…)
I’ll wait with interest to see what will be the next big thing for book names and designs.