• Books and reading,  History

    Brooding and malevolent: ‘The Burning Island’ by Jock Serong

    Jock Serong is one of my favourite Aussie authors. He writes novels that are page turners, taut and beautiful, with characters that don’t leave you. The Burning Island is a sequel, of sorts, to his earlier historical fiction work Preservation, which was a stand-out for me because it incorporated both historical fiction and crime in an unforgettable package. I would recommend reading Preservation first – the latest book can be a stand-alone, but there is so much that links the two books together, it would be a shame to miss out.

    The Burning Island picks up the story of former Lieutenant Joshua Grayling, but told this time through the voice of his daughter Eliza, spinster and governess in 1830’s Sydney. Joshua is a faint shadow of the man we first meet in Preservation – damaged and traumatised by his encounters with the enigmatic Mr Figge and the devastating events that follow, he is an alcoholic and recluse.

    When he is offered a chance for revenge he grasps it – to Eliza’s horror. It will involve a voyage to the Furneaux Islands (located in Bass Strait, between mainland Australia and Tasmania) including the island called Preservation, where the story in the first book begins. Eliza must accompany her father, because he is now not only an alcoholic, but also blind.

    The tragedy of addiction and the strain it places on family relationships is portrayed beautifully, and Serong’s trademark descriptive prose glows throughout this novel, resulting in both a gripping story and an incredible character study.

    We sat like that and neither of us spoke. The boat slipped onward, closing in towards something we couldn’t understand. The dark birds moved about us, specks of cold water lit on our faces, perhaps spray or the faintest rain, drips off the rigging, and here we were, two lost people on a voyage to nowhere.

    The Burning Island p121

    There is much in this novel about the often bloody and violent history of the islands, with sealers, mutton birding and kidnapping of Aboriginal women from nearby islands and Tasmania itself, as well as their kidnapping by white authorities – an attempt at genocide. The dramatic, lonely islands are imbued with a malevolence that echoes the nature of the man being pursued – the vile Mr Figge.

    It all makes for a novel that once read, is not easily forgotten.

    The Burning Island was published by Text Publishing in 2020.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading,  History

    Cycles of tragedy and hope: ‘Daughter of the River Country’ by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams

    Imagine being not quite sixteen, alone in the world and pregnant. Now imagine being faced with two intolerable alternatives: give up your baby for adoption or choose a life of violence, terror and misery.

    This is what happened to the author of this memoir – not a hundred years ago, but in the mid twentieth century. Brought up in a white Australian family in the 1950’s, Dianne experienced unwavering love from her mother, but abuse at the hands of her father. She did not know she was adopted until later and was confused about many things, including why she always felt different from others around her.

    Daughter of the River Country paints a vivid picture of suburban Australia in the latter half of the last century: the casual racism, bullying and violence meted out to those who least deserved it; the White Australia Policy that was still firmly in place; the neglect, jaw-dropping abuse and cruelty by those in charge of institutions meant to care for girls with no safe home to live in. For these reasons the memoir is hard to read at times but no less important for that. It tells of parts of our country’s history that many would prefer to forget, but which must be remembered so that we don’t keep repeating into the future. And as the author reminds us, some things haven’t changed as yet – the shameful gaps in life expectancy between indigenous and other Australians is one example, as is the shocking rate of incarceration and deaths in custody of indigenous people.

    Dianne discovered that she was one of the Stolen Generations, taken from her birth mother when a baby. Her people were Yorta Yorta, from the river country of Victoria. Her adoptive mother had very much wanted her and Dianne had a relatively happy childhood, though with edges of danger from her adoptive father that were fully expressed in cruelty after her mother died. From there, everything fell apart for the young girl: she experienced multiple violent relationships, incarceration in both a girls’ home and gaol; alcohol addiction and indifference or outright abuse from some who should have helped her.

    Discovering her birth family, her Aboriginal heritage and her people, brought about an incredible turn of events and her life took an upward turn, though not without tragedy along the way. It is the true measure of the woman that she was able to rise above the awfulness of her earlier life and work towards a better future for herself and her own children and grandchildren, and for her community.

    I have nothing but admiration for Dianne O’Brien and her memoir sheds further light on what has often been a hidden part of Australia’s past. It is one of the growing number of books that allow Australians to learn, reflect and hopefully understand more about the experiences of First Nations communities.

    Daughter of the River Country is published by Echo Publishing in July 2021.
    My thanks to Better Reading for an advance reading copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Some things change (and some definitely remain the same!) ‘Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia’ by Matt Murphy

    Hands up if you sometimes think “We are rules by fools and knaves!” Or if you fret about the unhealthy role that alcohol seems to play in our Australian society. Me, too. It may be reassuring (or not) to know that this is not a new thing. In fact, according to this history by Matt Murphy, Australia’s very beginning as a British colony in the eighteenth century was inextricably linked to and shaped by alcohol, and the idiocy and corruption that so often accompanies it. One type of alcohol (rum) played a greater role than others, and this book deftly fills in a history of the beverage itself, how it first arrived on the shores of New South Wales, and what happened after.

    Startling snippets of information are revealed: did you know, for example, that the First Fleet brought sufficient rum for seven years for each marine on board – but only enough food for two years. Rum was packed into the holds of those tall ships at the expense of tools, clothing and food supplies that the penal settlement would need in its early years.

    Alcohol had an immediate, detrimental impact on Aboriginal people around Sydney and further afield; one that is still being felt today. Very quickly rum became a measure of currency and exploited by those in charge of the settlement – the NSW Marine Corps – which earned them the epitaph of ‘Rum Corps’.

    We are introduced to some well-known historical figures: First Nations figures such as Bennelong; colonial Governors; convicts; emancipists and free settlers; those responsible for guiding the settlement all the way from England. Some of these characters are more notorious than others: John Macarthur, for example, is given a lot of attention due to his incessant meddling and blatantly corrupt activities, many of which involved the importation, sale and use of rum to further his own interests.

    Murphy highlights the huge amount of energy expended on dispatches, petitions, orders about rum to and from authorities in NSW and London, canvassing the advantages and pitfalls of importing, distilling, trading, controlling and drinking the stuff. Well meaning but unsuccessful edicts regarding the control of alcohol consumption have echoes in our own times:

    A further law proclaimed in June 1825 was aimed at publicans who condoned disorderly conduct on their premises or permitted patrons to become drunk. While the law pertaining to convicts was somewhat easy to maintain, the second one only meant that boozed-up barflies were being turfed out of hotels to drink in the street…Now there were more drunks on the street than ever before.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia p229

    Is it just me, or could these attempts to curb the negative effects of alcohol consumption be the Georgian equivalents of Sydney’s lock-out laws and today’s ‘responsible service of alcohol’ guidelines?

    Matt Murphy writes with humour and a fast pace, so this is an entertaining read as well as a sobering (no pun intended) look at our modern relationship with alcohol, and it is refreshing to re-visit some well-known people and events from history through the prism of one substance or object – in this case, the bottom of a rum bottle.

    Rum: A Distilled History of Colonial Australia is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.

  • Children's & Young Adult Books,  History

    Another historical fiction gem for younger readers: ‘Night Ride into Danger’ by Jackie French

    From Australia’s amazing Jackie French comes another book that tantalises with a gripping story while immersing readers in the sights, sounds, smells and figures from Australia’s past.

    Night Ride into Danger is set in NSW’s Braidwood district in the 1870’s, the days of the iconic Cobb & Co coaches. In the first few paragraphs we are plunged into the world of young Jem and his widowed father, Paw, a skilled coach driver who takes Jem to ride beside him on the 14 hour journey from Braidwood to Goulburn.

    We get a vivid sense of the coachmen’s work, the adventurousness as well as the hardships of his life, the way the coach looked, smelt and felt for the passengers who entrusted their lives to his care on the rutted, icy or flooded roads common at that time.

    The passengers in this story – six of them – all have their reasons for choosing to take the faster but more dangerous night mail coach. Each of them has a different secret and the ways in which the secrets are gradually revealed make up the connecting spine of this story.

    When Jem’s father is injured, Jem must take over as driver – a tall order for a youngster who has never driven a team of four horses at night on such a long journey. How Jem deals with this challenge and interacts with the six other people who travel with him, makes for an engaging tale.

    The book includes many of the figures of Australian colonial legends: gold diggers, bushrangers, farmers, innkeepers and grooms. There are also women (often hidden in the annals of Australian folklore): dancers, cooks, farmers, as well as women travelling to a new country to be married, or giving birth in difficult circumstances. The author doesn’t avoid describing the racism inherent in white attitudes of the time, or the strictures of colonial society against Chinese immigrants, First Nations people, or unmarried mothers.

    The characters are all active and engaging and the reader will cheer Jem on in his quest to arrive safely in time for both the mail and his passengers to meet the Goulburn train for Sydney.

    Night Ride into Danger is guaranteed to be enjoyed by middle grade readers who like a mix of history, adventure and mystery.

    Night Ride into Danger is published by HarperCollins Children’s Books in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A romp through colonial Sydney: ‘Flash Jim’ by Kel Richards

    Did you know that Australian expressions such as yarn, snitch, swag or cove originated from Flash cant, the jargon and coded language spoken by criminals in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and transported along with convicts to the Australian colonies? And that the very first dictionary written in Australia was written by a convict in an effort to curry favour with authorities – a vocabulary of the Flash language written by an Englishman by the name of James Hardy Vaux.

    Kel Richards’ biography of Vaux is based in part on the convict’s own memoirs, though as Richards points out, Vaux’s account of his actions needs to be treated with caution. He was a nineteenth century version of Peter Foster, an complete fraudster and convincing con-man, who skipped his way through English and Australian society with a fast and slick turn of the tongue and an apparent inability to stick at an honest job for more than a few weeks.

    Born into a respectable middle class family, Vaux declined opportunities available to him that were not offered to people from less comfortable beginnings, preferring instead to swindle, rob, steal, pickpocket and scam his way to an income. He seems to have been a clever man with very little judgement and a breathtaking level of recklessness, and it must be said, very good luck that frequently enabled him to avoid capture or, when he was arrested, got him acquitted on some legal technicality or other.

    I thoroughly disapproved of his criminal activities but I admit to being amused that the methods Vaux employed to hoodwink people in authority (employers, magistrates, etc) were the very aspects of ‘respectable society’ so sacred to those authorities: letters of recommendation from one acquaintance to another, for example; or the ability to present himself well and speak in a cultured and respectful manner. It was also ironic that at times, he got taken in by the very same sorts of scams he himself loved to perform on others.

    Good luck eventually runs out and so Vaux was finally found guilty of one of his many crimes and transported to NSW on a convict ship. Here his education again served him well; being one of a small group of convicts who could read and write enabled him to wheedle his way into easier jobs such as clerical or transcription work – much preferable to assignment as a farm labourer or on the iron gangs, especially for someone who seemed to have an allergic reaction to anything looking like physical work.

    I was astonished that he served not one, but two sentences of transportation – after arriving back in England after his first sentence expired, (in itself an unusual achievement) he returned straight away to his life of crime, resulting in a second period of transportation to the colony. This was clearly a man who did not learn from past mistakes!

    His example also serves to show that the horrific sentencing laws of Georgian and Victorian England were no deterrent to crime: people either stole because of extreme poverty and desperation, or because they preferred it to legal employment. Either way, the threat of a death sentence or of transportation to the far side of the world, did not stop the rising tide of crime in England.

    It was on his second stint in Australia that Vaux began work on his dictionary of Flash slang. Serving time in the convict settlement of Newcastle (reserved for re-offenders like Vaux) he recorded the huge array of words and expressions used by criminals, that so bewildered and frustrated magistrates and colonial authorities. Vaux planned to present his helpful guide to the Commandant of the Newcastle convict station. It was eventually published in London in 1819.

    Richards has included the dictionary as an appendix in his account of it’s author’s life, and it makes for terrific reading. There are many words recognisable today; though some have expanded or changed in meaning or use, many are used exactly as they were in Vaux’s world. If, for example, I said ‘He looks like he’s about to croak’, I suspect you’d know what I meant. ‘Can I cadge $10 from you?’ means just the same as it did in 1800, except with different currency.

    There are some expressions that have faded into the past and are as inexplicable to me as they must have been to a magistrate in Vaux’s time. What, for example, would ‘I’ll get the vardo and you can tow the titter out so she can be unthimbled’ mean?

    Some of the entries are hilarious, some quite grim, but they all give the feeling of the world in which they were created and used. It was a hard, unforgiving time for many and their language is imbued with sly humour and an anti-authoritarian slant that arguably still underpins aspects of modern day Australian culture.

    Flash Jim is a romp through the world of nineteenth century crime, criminals and their culture. Readers who enjoy language and it’s origins, and history brought to life, will find it an engrossing read.

    Flash Jim is published by HarperCollins Publishers in May 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    A heady time: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

    Historical fiction and romance author Mary-Anne O’Connor has set her latest novel in the first years of the twentieth century, a heady time in Australia as Federation joined the colonies into one nation, and Australian women – if only white women – looked forward to the campaign for women’s suffrage resulting in success.

    The three Merriweather sisters in the novel have grown up in an enlightened home, with mother Harriet and father Albert supporters of rights for women and for indigenous Australians. Despite their shared convictions, they are otherwise very different: Frankie is passionate about the suffrage campaign and determined to stand for Parliament herself so that she can help make laws that give women more rights and freedoms. Aggie is happily married and longing for a baby, fearful that she and her husband will be unable to conceive a child of their own. She devotes her time to volunteer work at an orphanage, wanting in her own way to make a difference in the world. The youngest is Ivy, who loves beauty and art and hopes for nothing more than marriage to Patrick, a nice home and a family of her own.

    Their lives take a dramatic turn on Ivy’s eighteenth birthday, when an accident on the river sees her rescued by Riley, a young man who makes a living with his supply boat up and down the tiny communities along the Hawkesbury – and some smuggling on the side. While she recovers from her injuries, Ivy sees a very different life in the wild river lands with the people who inhabit its secret coves and reaches. Her time with Riley and his sister Fiona will change her life – and that of her sisters – forever.

    The water was clear at the edges but a murky olive colour further out, mysterious in its flow as it hid whatever creatures lived below the surface. It seemed appropriate that a deeply flowing, concealing river should be the main artery that pumped through this place…It held secrets, this river, and so did the people who lived along it.

    Sisters of Freedom p183

    I grew up in the Hawkesbury Valley – upstream from the locations of this novel – and one of my standout reads of 2020 was Grace Karskens’ fabulous historical work People of the River so I came to this book keen to read about the place and characters its author dreamed into existence. I very much enjoyed the descriptions of places and communities and the political and social milieu of the time; the references to significant people of the Australian suffrage movement (such as Vida Goldstein); and the way in which major national events played out in individual and family lives.

    Ivy’s gradual realisation of the inequities faced by women of all classes, and the particular hardships of the poor, echo those of women in the 1970’s during what has is known as ‘second wave’ feminism. The shocking and absurd ideas about women expressed by some men in the early twentieth century are, sadly, not completely erased from twenty-first century Australia. The struggles of individual women to balance their desire for romance, family, companionship, with their own hopes and goals, is one which never seems to go away. In this way, Sisters of Freedom is a timely novel despite being set more than a hundred years ago.

    There is a strong romance thread throughout, and I thought the resolution a little contrived (almost Shakespearian!) but actually quite fun as well. It’s nice to imagine a ‘happy ever after’ for characters, after all.

    Sisters of Freedom will be enjoyed by readers who like some romance along with strong characters and evocative descriptions of real places, in times past.

    Sisters of Freedom is published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Beautiful prose with a dark story: ‘The Ripping Tree’ by Nikki Gemmell

    For me, this new work of fiction by best seller Nikki Gemmell (Shiver, The Bride Stripped Bare, among other titles) is a conundrum. I had been excited to read it as I enjoyed her earlier works and it is set in colonial era New South Wales – my cup of tea. It tells the story of Thomasina, raised by a free spirited father who she is mourning after his death; sent by a manipulative half brother to the colony. His plan is to marry off his vibrant, ‘untameable’ young sister to a vicar, a man she has never met.

    Fate intervenes and the ship they are travelling on goes down just off the Australian coast, with Thomasina the only survivor. She is washed up on rocks, rescued by a mysterious Aboriginal man and deposited, with care, at the doorstep of ‘Weatherbrae’, the home of the respectable Craw family.

    The family takes her in but there is no sanctuary here for Thomasina.

    She befriends Mouse, the young boy who shares her love of nature and passion for life. Mouse’s nervous, dissatisfied mother first sees the strange young castaway as a replacement for the daughter she lost to illness – and a welcome female companion. There is talk of Thomasina becoming governess for Mouse, offering her a home and refuge from an unwanted marriage and constrained life as a respectable wife.

    Very quickly, though, she realises that at the heart of the Craw family there is a dark secret. ‘Weatherbrae’ itself becomes a character, almost gothic in its claustrophobia, while the wild country outside its doors beckons to the young woman on the cusp of adulthood, who is confused and troubled by what she sees, hears and suspects. Told over the space of one week, the story becomes a tale of terrible acts committed, a family eaten away by their secrets, willing to do anything to preserve their respectability in the eyes of themselves and their community.

    As always, Nikki Gemmell’s writing is beautiful, startling in its originality and lyricism:

    ‘Isolated by the alone…’ p21
    ‘I miss my father, corrosively.’ p 9
    ‘…light slips in through a curtain gap as strong as a cat, enticing us both out.’ p11

    I loved the language, losing myself in Ms Gemmell’s beautiful prose.

    And yet…

    There were aspects of this novel that threw me out of the story, annoyingly and at times violently. I could not warm to Thomasina; while I admired her determination to remain true to herself and the way she was raised, her naivety and blindness to the risks around her irritated me. She continually acts in ways that can only increase the risk to herself and to others and while by the end of the story she realises her mistakes, it’s too late. Occasional expressions that feel wrong for the historical period also jarred: ‘I guess’ or ‘Hang on’ seem inconsistent with colonial English, even in a colony planted at the far end of the earth.

    The dark heart of the story is to do with the troubled relations between First Australians and settlers; it’s no spoiler to say that as it is obvious from the beginning that atrocities of the sort committed during the colonial era will be involved. I respect the author’s choice to write a story about difficult events like these.

    ‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it.’

    The Ripping Tree p339

    This quote from the end of the book speaks to the truth of the novel and the author’s purpose. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiments expressed. For me, the disappointment lies in my inability to care for the protagonist or most of the other characters.

    Others may disagree: I would be most interested to know if you have read The Ripping Tree and if so, what you thought.

    The Ripping Tree is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Remembering the heroines: ‘Legends of the Lost Lilies’ by Jackie French

    Firstly: don’t let the luscious cover of Jackie French’s latest historical fiction fool you. It may look like a classic historical romance, but there is enough danger, intrigue, secrets and twisty bits to satisfy any lover of thriller novels. No car chase scenes, but I say thank goodness for that!

    Secondly, a disclaimer: Legends of the Lost Lilies is book number five (and the final) in the Miss Lily series, which collectively cover the immediate pre-WWI period to the immediate post-WWII period (and a later epilogue). I had previously read only the first, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies, and there is a lot that happens in the intervening three episodes – so I was left a little bewildered by some of the story in this latest book. Ms French skilfully weaves in essential bits of backstory and introduces characters well (of course she does, she is an expert storyteller), but I do think it best to come to this one having read at least one or two of the previous titles. I intend to go back and fill in some gaps when I can.

    The characters from the first Miss Lily appear in this one, too, though of course much has happened to them all over two world wars and everything in between. I don’t want to say much about the plot of book five, because it would be too easy to give spoilers. One thing I will say about the plot is that, in her Author’s Note, Ms French assures us that every character and incident in the book is based on people and events that really existed, individually or as composites. That was good to read because there are some ‘larger than life’ characters and some moments when I wondered at a plot turn. Shades of Margaret Atwood, who based every event in her groundbreaking novel The Handmaid’s Tale’ on things that had really happened somewhere in the world.

    I’d like to comment on the themes of the five Miss Lily books. In her Author’s Note, Jackie French says:

    The series shows how women’s views of themselves changed and widened over the twentieth century. It is also about the women men did not see, or rather, did see, but then for a multitude of reasons omitted from history.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.431

    The novel also explores the complexities of life, of relationships, the tragedy and pointlessness of war. A strong underlying theme is the nature of love (in all its forms) and loyalty, kindness and forgiveness as tools for peace, and loss as the inevitable other side of love.

    A lovely quote towards the end of the book combines many of these themes. Observing the young women of her family in the 1970’s, Sophia reflects on how the women of her generation and earlier generations prepared their path:

    They think they invented it all, and that is how it should be, for pride in what they have achieved will take them further.
    Yet their grandmothers and great-grandmothers and every generation of women before them were there at every major moment in history, though the books rarely record us.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies p.428

    In amongst the drama, the intelligence activities, the horror of wartime, the losses, pain and grief, this is the shining thread that runs through the Miss Lily narrative: women and their networks, friendships, strengths. The series will be enjoyed by historical fiction fans who love reading about the heroic women of our collective past.

    Legends of the Lost Lilies will be published by HarperCollins Australia in April 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading,  History

    More stuff I didn’t know! ‘The Codebreakers’ by Alli Sinclair

    Did you know that Australia had its own version of the Bletchley Park signals and cipher intelligence unit? No? Neither did I, until I read this new historical fiction by Australian author Alli Sinclair. Set in Queensland during WWII, it tells the story of the women and men who worked in a top secret organisation called Central Bureau.

    People were recruited from all walks of life. They needed level heads, problem solving skills, as well as an aptitude for mathematics, patterns, languages, commitment to the war effort and – of course – the ability to keep secrets. They all signed an official secrets act, which meant they could never talk about the work they did. Not to family, friends…anyone.

    I’ve often wondered how people who work in these sorts of roles, or in intelligence services more generally, manage to keep their working lives separate from the rest of their personal lives. For most people, work is such a big part of life and to keep it secret… well, I think it would be almost impossible.

    What I especially liked about The Codebreakers is that this aspect of their role is not avoided. In fact, the secrecy requirements and the difficulties this posed for women forms a key part of the story.

    Added to this is the portrayal of the other factors at play. The women recruited to Central Bureau were young, they lived in barracks and worked together every day, in a garage at the back of a mansion in a Brisbane street (most of the men worked inside the house itself). The women were dubbed ‘The Garage Girls’, and they formed strong bonds as a result of their experiences.

    Brisbane during WWII is portrayed brilliantly – the heady atmosphere of wartime; fear of imminent Japanese invasion; grief and heartache at the loss of loved ones killed in action; conflict between Australian and American servicemen; rationing; the quick courtships and impulsive marriages that sometimes happened; living with continual uncertainty and anxiety. It’s easy for us today, knowing what we know now, to forget that at the time, Australians did not know what the outcome would be. Reading this novel I found it easy to imagine how it would have felt, living with the possibility that Japanese soldiers might well arrive on the shores of northern Australia.

    The other aspect of the novel that is very convincing is the portrayal of how it felt for Australians, once peace was declared. Of course there was elation, joy, relief. For some, there was also sadness and a sense of let-down. We can understand that for the women in Central Bureau, their employment ceased almost immediately. They were expected to return to hearth and home, making way for the men as they returned from the services. The aftermath of war is not always easy, and they had to exchange the exciting, demanding, important work they had been doing, for more mundane roles at home or in jobs seen as suitable for women.

    Shadowed by the mansion at Nyrambla, this little garage had been the centre of her world for two and a half years. Its walls had witnessed the women handling some of the war’s most top-secret messages and ensuring they got into the right hands at Bletchley Park, Arlington Hall and countless outposts around the world. The messages they’d decrypted and encrypted had saved lives and helped the troops come back to their loved ones. All this happened under the roof of a regular-looking garage in suburban Brisbane and no one outside Central Bureau would ever be the wiser.

    The Codebreakers p324

    If you enjoy finding out about lesser known aspects of Australian life during WWII – and particularly the more unusual roles performed by some women – you’ll love The Codebreakers. There is a light touch of romance in the story, though the main themes are to do with friendship, courage and the many ways in which lives are changed by war.

    The Codebreakers is published by HarperCollins Australia in March 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.