What connects us: ‘One Illumined Thread’ by Sally Colin-James
A triumph of a debut novel, Australian author Sally Colin-James has created a beautiful story that travels between three different time periods, celebrating the things that connect us across centuries.
The beautiful lyrical prose had me captivated from the first chapters, where there are hints of psychological trauma and great loss, but also plunged me into the past with the scents and tastes of the modern-day protagonist combined with those of the past.
We travel back and forth in time and place, from ancient Judea to Renaissance Florence, to Adelaide in the current period.
This is a novel for anyone who is enchanted by the spell that can be cast by an item, work of art, or moment from the past.
The author’s note explains how a Renaissance painting she viewed at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence sparked the idea that later became this book. She has woven a story connecting that painting with a black glass artefact from the ancient world and to an embroidery being restored by a textile conservator.
It’s a complex novel, perhaps slightly on the slow side for those who like their fiction fast paced, but well worth persevering with. There is fascinating detail about the different worlds and times the characters inhabit, and the processes used to create things of beauty and meaning.
Ultimately the novel is a hymn of praise to the act of creation in all its forms:
How can I dare say that this work too is sacred, like grinding grain or baking? This is tsar. The act of creating. Of transforming one thing into another with simple breath. An act that might be called sinful should I express the elation it brings, how it makes my heart dance like the flickering fire that transforms grit into glass.One Illumined Thread p96
Through the three main characters’ lives, we see how women’s existence is so often defined by service to others and by their fertility – or lack of – even in the present day. And the author shows how consolation and joy may be found in creative acts, no matter how small or large, fleeting or enduring. Beauty from the past continues to bring us pleasure and wonder, centuries later. This is why creativity matters to humankind as well as to the person who expresses their essential self through it:
The line twists and coils and catches the light. I trace around it with my finger. Not a rope to hold onto, but a single bright stitch holding pieces together. Fragments of the past held in place by the present. Connected by one illumined thread.One Illumined Thread p321
One Illumined Thread is a complex, beautiful novel about connections between women and between the past and the present.
It is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
After the gold rushes: ‘The Homecoming’ by Alison Stuart
In her new book, Aussie author Alison Stuart once again demonstrates her deep knowledge and love for the parts of Victoria that were the scene of frenzied gold rushes in the mid 1800’s.
The Homecoming is the third novel set in fictional Maiden’s Creek. The first two were The Postmistress and The Goldminer’s Sister.
This new story is set two decades after the last in the 1890’s, when the gold seams around the township are mostly exhausted. Residents needed to find new ways of making a living. The protagonists are two characters from the earlier novels: Charlotte (Charlie) O’Reilly and Danny Hunt. No longer children, they are brought back to Maiden’s Creek after years spent developing careers elsewhere: Charlie as a nurse and Danny a lawyer.
Both are dealing with the legacies of difficult circumstances from their childhoods and have returned to the town for different reasons.
While working as Matron of the small cottage hospital, Charlie is embroiled in a series of events that bring escalating danger to her and to others. Danny is dodging an enemy from his past who is intent on doing him harm. Then the town is engulfed by a dangerous flood which threatens everyone.
In the midst of all this, the pair find themselves increasingly pulled towards each other.
I took a while to get fully involved in this novel, perhaps because I had read The Goldminer’s Sister in 2020 and my memory had to work hard to recall the characters and events from that story. Having said that, The Homecoming would also make a satisfying stand-alone read without reference to the earlier books. There is mystery, romance and some terrific characters; all of which add up to a great addition to Australian historical fiction shelves.
The Homecoming is published by HQ Fiction in January 2023.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Delightful take on 40’s noir: ‘The Woman Who Knew Too Little’ by Olivia Wearne
This is an account – with a twist – of the discovery and subsequent investigation of the ‘Somerton Man’ affair: one of the longest running unsolved mysteries in Australian history. In this re-telling of the events, it is a woman who narrates the story.
In 1948, the body of a man is found dead at Somerton, an Adelaide beach. He is dressed well in a nice suit and good shoes – with all the clothing labels removed. He has no wallet or any possessions to identify him, and he is found sitting on the sand against the sea wall.
He is first seen by Kitty Wheeler, a member of ‘Women Police’, tasked with patrolling streets and beaches in what is essentially a social welfare role. She and her partner spot the man but mistake his stillness for drunken sleep, and they decide to let the fellow sleep it off.
When the mystery of the unknown man takes over the city’s police and newspapers, Kitty regrets the missed opportunity to be part of the investigation of the year, if not the decade.
The setting of a novel about a female police constable against the backdrop of a famous mystery allows Olivia Wearne to examine the mores and values of the time. Kitty loves her work, despite the frustrating restrictions imposed on women, who are relegated to the so-called ‘soft’ issues of brothels, child welfare, domestic violence, vagrancy. Rarely allowed to be a part of an actual investigation, she still manages to inveigle herself into key aspects of the Somerton Man case, but she needs persistence and occasionally, impertinence, to be even heard by the ‘real’ police – the male detectives – handling the case.
She also has family issues to contend with, and a loyal and loving fiancé who is eager for her to tie the knot – which Kitty knows would be the end of her policing career. As the days go by, she becomes more and more obsessed with the Somerton Man investigation, consumed by the need to know who he was.
This is very much a character driven novel, with a cast of personalities who come to life in the pages. The pacing was a little slow for me at times, but this was more than compensated by the brilliant use of clever language and descriptive writing. There is witty dialogue as Kitty (at times an ascerbic, prickly sort) engages with her colleagues, members of the public and family, capturing workplace and family dynamics brilliantly. The author makes inventive use of simile and metaphor that gave me some laugh-out-loud moments:
Almost every passenger on the trolley held a newspaper up to their faces. MISSING FATHER AND SON FOUND IN MACABRE DISCOVERY. When the car pitched and swayed the commuters moved with it, like some jolly choreographed performance. Under cover of newsprint, they were feasting on the story, gorging on the Mangnosons’ misfortune.The Woman Who Knew Too Little pp220 &367
Peter let his head sink between his stooped shoulders. A forlorn droop, like a houseplant desperate for water. His torso rose and fell as he heaved in resignation. He hauled himself onto his feet, leaving his head hanging, and addressed his leather boots, whose untied laces appeared to be slithering away from him: ‘I think we need some time apart.’
The delightful cover and title advertise the book’s intent perfectly: take a well-known and long-lasting mystery from the 1940’s, marry it with tropes from classic noir novels and film, then mix it in with delicious irony and wickedly observant swipes and the hypocrisies of the time.
The Woman Who Knew Too Little is published by HQ Fiction in February 2023.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
All about empathy: ‘Waiting for the Storks’ by Katrina Nannestad
Australian author Katrina Nannestad is back with another in her series for middle-grade readers, about children in WWII Europe. This one is about Polish youngsters stolen by the Nazis to further their hideous Lebensborn program, during which children and babies who looked ‘Aryan’ were taken to be Germanised and adopted into German families.
The earlier books in this series, We Are Wolves and Rabbit, Soldier, Angel, Thief dealt with the experiences of some German and Russian children.
All of the stories are about empathy: understanding that there are always many ‘sides’ in warfare, and that children and non-combatants are always the victims, regardless of which side they come from.
In Waiting for the Storks, Zofia is eight years old when she is kidnapped and taken away to become a ‘good German girl.’ The story accurately and sympathetically captures the ways in which brainwashing techniques such as punishment and reward, isolation and repetition are used to achieve the desired outcome – in this case, a complete obliteration of Zofia’s memories of her loving Polish family and home, and adoption of her new German identity.
There are small acts of resistance. A lovely scene is in the camp as the children are forced to learn German, where they use the meaningless phrases they are being taught in a way that expresses their defiance:
The nurse nods, satisfied. She walks away, but we keep speaking in German, because nurses have stethoscope ears and pinchy fingers and slappy hands and bad tempers.Waiting for the Storks p76
‘Hello’, says Kat, ‘I am a boy.’
‘Hello, says Jadwiga, rubbing her bald head. ‘I am a potato.’
‘Goodbye,’ says Maria. ‘I must go to the bathroom.’
We’re giggling now, sniggering into our soup. Even little Ewa. It’s brilliant, because we’re obeying the rules with our words, but not in our hearts.
A family game (‘Make a choice!) is used effectively as a motif throughout the story. So, where the choices with her parents were fun and light-hearted (Cream on your salami or gravy on your poppyseed cake? Make a choice!) they now become a survival strategy (Polish or German? Make a choice! and Orphan or beloved daughter? Make a choice!)
The descriptions of the ‘Germanisation’ process are quite realistic and troubling. This is a book for mature younger readers who can deal with themes of sadness, loss, cruelty. The rewards are many, though, including a deeper understanding of the best and worst in humans. There is light and hope at the end which I believe is important for readers of this age group.
Waiting for the Storks is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in November 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
Billie Walker Book #2: ‘The Ghosts of Paris’ by Tara Moss
I very much enjoyed Tara Moss’ first historical crime novel Dead Man Switch, now published as The War Widow. In book two, it’s 1947 and Sydney-based private inquiry agent Billie Walker sets off for London and Paris, to investigate the disappearance of a client’s husband.
The Billie Walker novels flip the script of familiar 1940’s noir stories. For a start, Billie is a refreshingly forthright, courageous and skillful investigator who navigates her way adroitly through the sexism inherent in the era. She is also a woman of decidedly modern and progressive views, and readers become aware of the troubling laws and practices of the time, around race, the role of women, divorce and homosexuality.
In Europe, Billie is confronted with stark reminders of the effects of the devastating war that ended just two years earlier. She is also reminded of her short but passionate relationship with Jack, whom she married while both were on assignment as journalists covering the war, and Jack’s mysterious disappearance. While searching for her client’s husband, Billie also searches for clues about her own.
What began as a trip to solve her client’s mystery becomes a much more complex – and deadly – affair, during which Sam, her reliable and loyal assistant, proves his worth more than once.
I especially enjoyed the vivid historical details in the settings of post-war Sydney, London and Paris, and the glimpses of each city’s wartime experience and (slow) recovery. It’s also sobering to realise that, unlike today, the world did not yet know the full extent of Nazi atrocities throughout Europe, and the novel shows us how this information was revealed, for example, during the Nazi war crimes trials.
There are a few of Billie’s expressions that I found jarring, but overall I enjoyed the characters of Billie, Sam and Shyla in particular.
I hope there’ll be a third Billie Walker story before too long.
The Ghosts of Paris is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Duty and trauma: ‘The Nurses’ War’ by Victoria Purman
Acclaimed Australian author Victoria Purman’s new historical fiction novel is a fat book, just the thing for reading by the fireside during a prolonged wet spell – which is how I enjoyed it. It’s an easy read – though not a light one – as it deals with real historical events that proved distressing, often tragic, for those who lived through them.
The setting is the real-life ‘Harefield House’, a grand mansion owned by wealthy expatriate Australians in the little village of Harefield, in Middlesex, England. In 1915 it was converted into a hospital for Australian troops recuperating from injurie inflicted at some of the many battlefields in Europe – especially at Gallipoli, France and Belgium.
The hospital was staffed by Australian doctors and nurses and it must have been wonderful for the ill and injured Diggers to hear the familiar accents from home as they were cared for.
If you, like me, are interested in the history behind the novel, the author has a piece on HarperCollins’ website with more detail, along with lovely photographs of the place, the nurses and some of the soldiers who went to Harefield. You can find it here.
The story concerns four nurses, among those who sailed from Australian homes to help establish the hospital and stayed to care for the injured. There is also a local woman, Jessie, who volunteers to help care for the patients. We witness their anxiety as they await the first influx of soldiers, followed by their increasing horror as the hospital, established to cater for up to one hundred and fifty men, is flooded by thousands, stretching their resources, both physical and human. We are not spared the sights, sounds and smells that engulf the nurses as the brutality of war on human bodies and minds becomes clear.
Cora had been well-trained, had more than a decade’s experience behind her and had believed she had seen almost everything, but nothing in Adelaide, nor the extra army training she’d undergone, could have prepared her for this sight.The Nurse’s War p79
The novel also touches on other, perhaps unexpected, results of the war: profound change as the fundamentals of society shift, with women stepping into what were previously ‘men’s jobs’, becoming agriculture or postal workers, tram conductors, ambulance drivers; new trends in clothing allowing women more freedoms and comfort; and of course the suffrage movement. The threat of instant death and loss also changed many people’s long-held beliefs and attitudes, about marriage, love, or religion, for example.
Friendships forged in wartime can be intense and profound, as can romances, but the novel does not pretend that these led to a ‘happy ever after’ ending for everyone. Rather, it illustrates the essentially random nature of an individual’s fate in times of war: an apparent throw of the dice can take a life or crush a person’s future. In such circumstances, is it surprising that people behave differently, re-think future plans or even their faith? World War I left behind a legacy of vast numbers of missing or profoundly wounded young men, multiple generations of grief, and a new social order in many parts of the then British Empire.
Some aspects of Australian life, however, continue throughout – including racial discrimination, where indigenous men had to have written permission from the Protector of Aborigines to enlist, and yet still faced racism on the battlefield, in hospitals, and also at home at war’s end.
This is a beautifully researched novel with characters that I quickly came to care about and a storyline that took me from the naivety of young Australians embarking on an adventure at the other side of the world, through the horrors of their war, to a profoundly moving conclusion.
At the end of The Nurses’ War, the influenza pandemic is sweeping through the world, inflicting a terrible toll on those who’d managed to survive years of war. Again, the random hand of fate is at play. And given the global pandemic of 2020 to the current time (2022) I could not help but compare the experiences of then, with now. I found myself wondering: could modern-day Australians or British cope with prolonged, seemingly never-ending trauma and stress of a convulsive war, followed so closely by a deadly pandemic, in quite the same way as our forebears had to do?
Coincidentally, this post is published on ANZAC Day, an annual commemoration of Australians who have died or suffered in war time. As I write this, a brutal war is being waged in Europe, as Russian troops attempt to take over the democratic nation of Ukraine. As always, I hope ANZAC Day will allow people to think about the futility and barbarity of war and redouble global efforts to put an end to using violence as a way to deal with disputes.
The Nurses’ War is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Girls can change the world: ‘Ming and Flo Fight for the Future’ by Jackie French
One of the (many) things I love about Jackie French’s historical fiction is that she effortlessly shines a light on frequently overlooked people and events from history, without veering into tokenistic territory. Her characters represent people who really were there, but who are so often hidden from view in traditional histories and stories. Her new Girls Who Changed the World series for middle grade readers is a good example.
In Book One, Ming and Flo Fight for the Future, we meet Ming, a twelve year old schoolgirl whose family has Chinese-Vietnamese and European heritage. Ming loves learning about history, but not the way it is taught at her school. She asks a question in class one day: ‘Sir, why don’t we ever learn about girls who changed history?… Where were all the girls at all the important times in the past?’
Good question, right? Sadly, her teacher and classmates have no answer for her. Ming is exasperated, until Herstory appears, to offer her a chance to return to the past – as an observer. Ming agrees, but in the process she manages to become a person living in the past. She is now Florence, and the year is 1898.
She is plunged into a drought-stricken farm in the middle of nowhere, grinding poverty, and the sudden death of Flo’s mother, until Aunt McTavish arrives to take Flo to share her well-heeled life in Sydney. Aunt McTavish is a friend of Louisa Lawson, a committed Suffragist, but determinedly ‘British to the core’ – despite her obvious mixed Chinese and Scottish heritage.
So Ming/Flo experiences some of the challenges for girls and women at a time when girls’ education was considered unimportant, women could not vote, and the White Australia policy loomed. As Herstory had warned her: ‘The past is – uncomfortable.’
In the process, Ming learns that it is not just the big, obvious actions that can lead to profound social or political change. More often, it is the small, unnoticed actions by committed people who never give up, that set the scene for change. As Herstory tells Ming:
Men like Henry Parkes get the credit for uniting Australia, but it would never have happened without the speeches, petitions and passion of women. When social forces come to a head, it’s usually been a man who got the credit, not the hundreds, the thousands, the millions of women who made it happen too, like Mrs Lawson.Ming and Flo Flight for the Future p256-257
Book Two of Girls who Changed the World will see Ming in Belgium during WWI. I look forward to reading it! This series will be enjoyed by those who are interested in stories from Australian history told from the viewpoint of those who are usually forgotten.
Ming and Flo Fight for the Future is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in March 2022.
My thanks to the publisher for a review copy.
Hardship, hope and glamour: ‘Dressed by Iris’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor
If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you will know how much I love – adore – fiction inspired by real people and events, especially when they are people from the author’s own family. This is exactly what Australian novelist Mary-Anne O’Connor has delivered in her latest historical fiction, Dressed by Iris.
Firstly, the glamour. The cover design is gorgeous; a beautiful young woman dressed in the lush fashions of the 1930’s. It’s lovely, and the story does centre around Iris, a young woman with a dream to design and make beautiful clothes.
But as in real life, glamour can hide a multitude of sins and less-than-beautiful realities. The novel opens with Iris and her large, Catholic family, living in a tiny shanty house on the outskirts of Newcastle. Times are hard, with the Depression biting deep. The family barely scrape by and to add insult to injury, they experience the ugly prejudice of some better-off townsfolk against ‘Micks.’ Iris is courted by, and in love with, John, a young man from a Protestant family; but fears that the division between their families can never be bridged. It’s very Romeo-and-Juliet.
Speaking of bridges, the story moves to Sydney, where Iris’s father and brother have found work, helping to build the Sydney Harbour Bridge. That bridge takes on a powerful role as a symbol of hope, modernity and better times ahead.
Meanwhile, Iris finds work for a well-known Sydney designer of fashionable women’s clothing, and her dream of designing clothes seems a step closer. There are new threats and obstacles to overcome, and the story takes many twists and turns before its resolution.
The author has given us a vivid picture of Sydney in the 30’s: the glamour of some parts, certainly; but also the rising desperation of the poor and a rising crime rate; entrenched sexism and religious intolerance; evictions of families unable to meet their rent; political turmoil with Fascists, Communists and unionists fighting pitched battles in the suburbs; the drama around the sacking of Jack Lang, the left-leaning Premier of NSW at the time. There are small details of domestic life that help bring the era alive: the careful coin counting and hard choices while shopping for a family’s dinner, just one example of this.
I found unexpected personal connections with some aspects of the story. The suburb the family settle in is Hurstville – near my mother’s own childhood stamping ground in southwest Sydney. And one of Mum’s vivid memories from her childhood is the day she, her parents and her two younger siblings were evicted from their flat, finding a new home in the then ‘charity estate’ at Hammondville.
Along with the ups and downs of the story and Iris’ journey from poverty to a career in fashion, Dressed by Iris is a love letter to family and to the lessons we learn from childhood. It’s also a song of praise for the virtues of hope, resilience, counting your blessings and making the best of things.
I was moved to read in the author’s note that the two ‘leading ladies’ of this story, Iris and her mother Agnes, were modelled closely on the author’s own aunt and grandmother, and so many of the snippets of life included in the novel did, in fact, occur. I confess I shed a tear or two, reading that.
They endured both tragedy and hardship, these two women, and faced great poverty during their lives, but they did it resiliently, cheerfully, generously and always with love. For me, that makes them two of the richest women that I will ever know.Dressed by Iris Author Note, p501
Dressed by Iris is published by HQ Fiction in February 2022.
My thank to the publisher for a review copy.
Colonial women: ‘No Hearts of Gold’ by Jackie French
Some girls are born to be loved,No Hearts of Gold
Some are born to be useful,
And some are born to be bad…
The strapline of Jackie French’s new historical fiction sums it up: not all colonial women in Australia were wives, mothers, convicts, or servants.
No Hearts of Gold is about three very different women: one from aristocratic English society; one of a sturdy business-minded nature; and one from a self-made-gone-bust family. They are brought together on a voyage from England to the colony in the 1850’s; the beginning of a complex but staunch friendship against all odds.
What they find in the booming, bustling, troubled colony defies their own expectations.
The three women embark on lives very different from the ones they may have envisaged for themselves, back in England.
Kat, daughter of a fond father whose fortune disappeared with the bust of railway shares that had created it in the first place, makes the quick marriage arranged for her by an aunt. While such a fast marriage seems improbable, they were surprisingly common at all levels of society then, especially in far-flung outposts like Sydney. Marriage offered protection, financial support and a chance to leave the past behind.
Titania launches a business provisioning the ships leaving the wharves, profiting from her acumen and hard work, but dispensing kindness and help to others where she can.
Wealthy, loving Viola lives with her guardian, Cousin Lionel, in the lavish house funded by her own inheritance.
It’s difficult to say much more about the plot while avoiding spoilers. So I will instead focus on the issues and themes canvassed in the novel.
The Gold Rushes play a major role in the plot line and set the scene for some of the drama. But the focus is also on the destructive nature of these crazy events: on families, on homes and businesses that overnight lost fathers, husbands, workers. And especially, on the fragile environment of this land.
… the vegetable gardens, the fruit crop, the supplies in their storeroom were a treasure now – a treasure that could keep you alive, when specks of gold could not, and envied by men who had forgotten laws and rules, even if they had once obeyed them. There was no one they could ask for help…No Hearts of Gold p177
Women’s lack of ownership over their wealth, possessions, future and even their children, and the control wielded by men, is another important current running through the novel. As is the ways in which many women, including our three protagonists, defied the systems and conventions that kept these inequities in place.
An unexpected twist turns the story into a mystery involving a possible murder, a bushranger and a police detective.
The novel packs in all this and more: but I think, at its heart is the precious nature of enduring friendships between women.
Viola closed her eyes in sudden, deep pleasure. A friend one could say anything to. A friend who took you seriously, and not as a child, or one who must live up to the concept of ‘lady’.No Hearts of Gold p171
No Hearts of Gold is another beauty of a Jackie French novel: a gripping mystery, a rollicking yarn, and an elegy to women’s strength and courage in a society that discouraged both.
No Hearts of Gold is published by Angus & Robertson, an imprint of Harper Collins Punishers, in December 2021.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
Tenacious women: ‘Elizabeth and Elizabeth’ by Sue Williams
Sue Williams takes the real-life women of her title, Elizabeth Macarthur and Elizabeth Macquarie, and places them in the centre of this novel about the early colonial years of Sydney and Parramatta. Told through the point of view of each woman, we meet the various characters that stride larger than life through Australian history books: ex-Governor William Bligh, Governor Lachlan Macquarie, Reverend Samuel Marsden, John Macarthur, and many other names that are familiar to us today as place names: Nepean, Evan, Bathurst, Hunter, Huskisson, for example.
At first reading, this novel has a very different take on these women than some other works. Kate Grenville’s A Room of Leaves, for example, portrays the relationship between Elizabeth Macarthur and her husband John in a very unflattering way, with Elizabeth as the publicly supportive but privately despairing woman tied to the erratic and self-serving John.
Reading Elizabeth and Elizabeth further, I could see that whatever Elizabeth’s true feelings about her husband, her circumstances did not allow her to do anything but be a supportive wife. Through the lens of modern understanding of mental ill-health, we might have some sympathy for John, subject to what would now likely be described as bipolar disorder or other serious mental illness.
That does not excuse his corrupt behaviour. Nor does it excuse the many petty personal jealousies and grievances of those in authority in the fledgling colony, and the way personal ambitions undermined the just and efficient administration of affairs in NSW. Sue Williams gives a graphic portrayal of how these factors played out.
We might also have sympathy for Elizabeth Macquarie, a new bride accompanying her husband to his post as Governor of a far flung colonial outpost of Britain. Nothing is as she expects. She and her husband face political opposition from those who see the colony as a way to make money or to rise up the ladder of their ambition. They also have to contend with apathy from the British Government, and their own personal misfortunes and ill-health.
In the end, Elizabeth and Elizabeth is a story about the tenacity of two women who never give up on what they see as the right thing to do, and put all their considerable skills to use in support of their husband, the family, and what they regard as the colony’s best interests. It’s a very readable novel and will be enjoyed by anyone interested in colonial Australian history.
Elizabeth and Elizabeth was published by Allen & Unwin in January 2021.