Books and reading

A slice of Australian life: ‘The Secret World of Connie Starr’ by Robbi Neal

The Secret World of Connie Starr is a sweeping story of one Australian town, Ballarat, during a thirteen year period encompassing World War II and its immediate aftermath.

It’s also the story of Connie, a child whose mother knew she was different – and difficult – from the moment of her birth. She sees (and speaks to) angels and demons, and she knows that the world is engaged in a ‘long, long war of good and bad.’ (p.436)

Connie grows up with her parents, Joseph (a strict and devout Baptist minister), her mother Flora, and step-siblings Thom, Lydia and Danny, and alongside their friends and neighbours, many of whose stories are intertwined with her own.

The book is written with an ‘omniscient author’ point of view, which allows the reader to engage with the experiences of each of the main characters alongside the broad canvas of the town and the sweep of world events. There are tragedies, loves and dramas; as elsewhere the onset of war means loss and despair for some, while for others it means escape of sorts, from mistakes or from an otherwise tedious life.

Connie is not an especially likeable character, but the novel is an exploration of difference: individual differences as well as seismic events that can change lives forever:

‘I don’t know where I’ll be sent next,’ he said, and the urgency of their world, the shortness of their lives, filled their lungs and they breathed deeply and thought it was their only chance to step into the future.’

The Secret World of Connie Starr p262

I appreciated the vivacity of the details in the book: wartime rationing, work and home lives, church activities, the devastation of illnesses like polio which are rarely thought of today in Australia, shortages of goods, and even the drudgery of postwar life with many missing husbands and sons and a loss of faith for so many.

Ms Neal has spent most of her life in country Victoria and lives in Ballarat, so the setting is particularly evocative, imbued with her own life experiences along with historical research. Some of the details made me smile in recognition, having grown up in country Australia in the 1960’s where many older traditions persisted: exploding ginger beer bottles in the shed, for example.

The Secret Life of Connie Starr is a beautiful book: both broad and specific, similar to the ways in which Tim Winton’s Australian classic Cloudstreet is simultaneously both a sweeping saga and a slice of Australian family life.
It is published by Harper Collins in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

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