Three Sheets to the Wind is a re-telling of the amazing true story of shipwrecked sailors who, in 1796, walked 600 miles through uncharted territory from the far southeast coast of Australia, almost to Sydney Town, before being rescued.
Adam Courtenay has placed this event in the historical and social contexts of its time: a new (and struggling) colony on the edge of the known world, run by a succession of English governors who tried, mostly unsuccessfully, to weaken the firm hold over its economy by the group of military officers known as the ‘Rum Corps.’
Alternating chapters allow the reader to follow the voyage of the ship Sydney Cove from its origins in Calcutta, to its wreck just off Tasmania. Its cargo was purely commercial: goods to be sold at a profit to the settlers in New South Wales – and most prized of all was the alcohol loaded into the ship’s hold, especially the 7,000 gallons of rum. This liquor had become an unofficial currency in the colony, to the detriment of all aspects of daily life, and its trade was monopolised by the Rum Corps, despite official efforts to discourage and/or control its import and sale.
You may have read Rum by Matt Murphy, published in 2021. If so, you will know the network of corruption and cronyism that the control and sale of this liquor encouraged and enabled.
Into this heady environment, Campbell & Clark, the Scottish owners of the Sydney Cove sent their cargo, hoping for a tidy profit and to establish a trading presence in the colony. The monetary value of the alcohol helps to explain why the ship’s master, Hamilton, and the ‘supercargo’ (responsible for its safe delivery) William Clark, went to such lengths to preserve the cargo when the ship foundered.
Courtenay gives us gripping account of the shipwrecks – plural, because after escaping the sinking ship in the longboat, the crew endured a second wreck while crossing Bass Strait, the often turbulent stretch of water that divides mainland Australia with the smaller island of Tasmania. (Keep in mind that at this point in time, Europeans did not know for sure if Tasmania, or Van Diemen’s Land as it was then called, was an island or if it was joined to the mainland. They were literally in uncharted waters, because even the renowned English explorer and cartographer James Cook had not thoroughly investigated this area on his earlier voyage.
Seventeen survivors set out on the trek north to Sydney. They were a mix of European and Indian-born sailors, known as ‘lascars’. (The treatment of the lascars by the Europeans is a story in itself.) The journey was recorded by Clark in a pocket notebook he carried with him. Gradually the seventeen became seven, then reduced further until only three were finally rescued just south of Sydney.
What is most notable about this story, I think, is the account by Clark of the group’s interactions with the First Nations people they encountered along the way. They passed through the country of at least six Indigenous clans and experienced both generous assistance and firm warnings from them. If it had not been for the local people, the travelers would have died from starvation or exposure many times. They were given food, shown shortcuts, and sometimes helped across rivers on canoes. On other occasions, though:
Clark soon realised their actions were a warning to keep off certain tracts of land – they were not there to kill the foreigners but rather to protect their country. Clark and his men weren’t being guided through these lands: they were being forcibly marched through them.Three Sheets to the Wind p184
There is much to both admire and deplore about this story. The party of sailors demonstrated enormous personal courage and strength to endure the trials they were subjected to. Clark’s account appears to hint at his changing view of the First Australians he met: from ‘barbarous hordes’ to generous and kind individuals. The observations by Clark and others of numerous seal colonies and plentiful seams of coal instigated the environmental disasters of the sealing, whaling and coal mining industries. And the voyage and subsequent trek north inspired more exploration, by George Bass and Mathew Flinders, among others – which both opened up more territory for the settlers and spelt the end of the sovereignty and sustainable lifestyles of First Australians.
Three Sheets to the Wind is a detailed and thought provoking account of an amazing story from our history. And I love the clever title: three sheets to the wind being a nautical term that also alludes to drunkenness.
It is published by HarperCollins Publishers in June 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
Dervla McTiernan (Irish-born Australian crime writer) has published a critically acclaimed and award winning series of novels featuring Detective Sergeant Cormac Reilly, set in Ireland. The Murder Rule is her latest, much-anticipated new book, this time a stand-alone and set in the United States.
I am a big fan of the earlier novels and I especially loved the character portrayal and development, and the sense of empathy that the writer conveys within well-crafted plots.
I have to confess that while reading The Murder Rule, I found myself missing the vivid sense of ‘Irishness’ of those earlier settings and characters. There is something about the Irish voice, and the misty (sometimes dark) landscape, that lends itself so well to crime fiction. If you are, like me, also a fan of Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, I am sure you will agree.
Having said that, The Murder Rule is, like McTiernan’s earlier novels, a well crafted story with a suitably tight plot, told with assurance and skill. The main protagonist is Hannah, a law student who applies to work at the Innocence Project. This is an organisation which works to free supposedly innocent people who have been wrongly convicted and imprisoned.
From the opening pages, readers understand that Hannah is not all she appears and that her motivations for joining the Innocence Project are not what they appear to be. The question is: why? And what has driven Hannah to take this admittedly extreme approach to righting what she sees as a grievous wrong done years earlier?
The answers are given as clues within chapters alternating between Hannah’s voice and diary entries made by her mother, Laura, when she was Hannah’s age.
I found myself feeling somewhat impatient with both characters at times, however when the first plot twist came it was so unexpected I was eager to read on.
The novel deals with the subtleties of human behaviour and ideas about right and wrong:
I’m just saying that it’s about narrative, isn’t it? We, I mean people, all of us, we love a story. We want a hero. We want a bad guy. We want a beginning, a middle, and an end. And life is more complicated than that but we love it when we’re served up a story and sometimes if we don’t get it, we make it for ourselves. We believe only the facts that suit the story we like and we ignore everything else.The Murder Rule p164
Readers who enjoyed books such as Gone Girl or The Woman in the Window will, I am sure, enjoy The Murder Rule. But I do hope to see a return of McTiernan’s native Ireland in a future story.
The Murder Rule is published by HarperCollins in May 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.
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.
In the early 1800’s, a time when well-bred young ladies were raised to do embroidery and look after their households and husbands, Rose de Freycinet dressed as a man and stowed away on her husband’s ship, sailing across vast oceans on a voyage of scientific exploration.
In so doing, she did support her husband’s venture (and occasionally sewed whilst on board) but she also became the first woman to circumnavigate the globe and to leave a record of her adventures. Her resolution from the start was:
Never, through my fears or my own wishes, to part my husband from his duty.Rose p348
It was a dangerous adventure for many reasons. To begin with, there was a strict prohibition on women aboard French ships. There were political considerations: the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had changed the geo-political scene irrevocably, and the Commander and crew of the ship Uranie had to tread carefully at their various ports of call. There were the common dangers of a voyage in the smallish ships of the time, with none of today’s comforts and navigational technology: the ever present possibility of shipwreck, disease, storms, being blown off course, running out of supplies and fresh water. Added to that was Rose’s unique position as a lone woman on a ship full of men, with whom she travelled for several years.
This is a thoroughly researched book and readers get a fascinating insight into how such a voyage was planned and prepared for; maritime traditions and practices in the nineteenth century; questionable (but common) medical practices; the drive to add to scientific and navigational knowledge; the intriguing customs and manners of the people encountered in places such as Brazil, French colonies, ‘New Holland’ (now Australia), the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Guam and the Sandwich Islands (now Hawaii), for example.
Looking at the map of the Uranie’s voyage, it is amazing to think of people setting sail into what were at times, literally uncharted waters. From our modern perspective, when many people don’t venture to a new town or country without checking on-line maps and reviews, these people were taking enormous risks! They were creating and correcting the maps as they went and recording what they found.
Rose recorded her experiences via a journal and in frequent letters to her mother back in France. After her death these were edited (the author suggests they were also ‘sanitised’ in some instances) and later published. I am grateful for that, because they give a very different perspective on the voyages of this period than do the formal ones written by her husband and other men.
For example, the Uranie was indeed shipwrecked, running aground at a bleak and deserted island in the Falklands. For Rose, the dreadful experience of terror followed by hunger and cold as they waited for rescue, was compounded by the fact that her husband became seriously ill. What would her fate be if he died, leaving her to the mercies of men without a commander?
I have always loved the Freycinet Peninsula in Tasmania’s northeast, named for Louis de Freycinet. When I travel there in future, I shall also think of Rose, a person of equal courage and adventurousness as her husband.
Rose is published by HarperCollins in March 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
I fell in love with this book while reading its opening pages. It ticks so many boxes for me: family history, family stories, personal challenges and insights, humour…I know it will be one of my ‘stand-out-reads’ of 2022.
When Australian writer and mother Ella Ward was undergoing treatment for a rare cancer at the age of thirty-six, she began a series of letters to her young daughter, in case she would not be around as her daughter grew into adulthood
In the process, she documented a lively and fascinating family history, encompassing her own stories but also those of her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents: their lives, loves and adventures. Woven throughout are 188 ‘Lessons’ for her daughter. The final one sums up her purpose: ‘Lesson #188: Tell your stories.
A family is only as strong as the stories that are told. And, I’m afraid to say, the stories can’t just be told – they need to be kept.27 Letter to My Daughter, p4
When my mother, the keeper of our family history and stories, began losing those memories due to encroaching dementia, I promised that I would hold, remember – and tell – the stories for her. This is what Ella has done for her daughter and all who follow her.
The Lessons serve as mother-to-daughter tips for a fulfilling life, and each one appears after family anecdotes that illustrate the points. Some of my favourites are:
Lesson #1: If you have a family, you have a story
Lesson #18: ‘The End’ does not mean ‘THE END’
Lesson #30: If you’re young, forgive yourself. If you’re not, stop (This one appears in the chapter called ‘For when you’re a jerk.’
Lesson #45: Try and do your stupid things with kind people
Lesson # 63: Your heartbreak will last exactly as long as it’s
Lesson #71: Shock will tear you apart. You will come back together. Differently, but together
Lesson # 110: Menopause is a feminist issue. Followed by Lesson # 112: Bleed loudly
Lesson #179: It’s okay to stay up past your bedtime when a book is to blame
The family stories include Ella’s great-grandfather’s experiences in the trenches of WWI, her grandparent’s globe-trotting lives, her mother’s single parenthood, her own experiences of travel, first jobs, love, motherhood and trauma. So yes: sadness, distress, hard work, blood and tears. But also: joy, fun, mischief, music, scents and sights. And magic and dreams.
27 Letters to My Daughter is a magical book that will have a place on my bookshelf for many years to come.
27 Letters to My Daughter is published by HarperCollins Publishers in April 2022.
My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.
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.
Are you a good person, or do you just look like one?
The question of what makes a ‘good person’ is explored from the perspectives of first year university students, in this contemporary novel by Sydney based writer, Diana Reid. Readers are invited to consider the hot-potato issues of consent, power and sex – a powder-keg mix if ever there was one.
If you can remember your late teen/early adult years, chances are there are at least a few cringe – or shame – inducing vignettes that you’d rather forget. Michaela is that age, living away from her Canberra home for the first time, and wanting to fit in somewhere. She is not an unquestioning acolyte, but rather interrogates her own experiences to the point of exhaustion. Her friendship with her college room neighbour Eve – wealthy, slender, white, and confidently opinionated – has her feeling out of depth, but she participates in the habitual, conditioned behaviours of young people in this environment – too much drinking, casual sex and drug use.
An occurrence during the university’s ‘O-week’ acts as an underlying pull for the narrative, providing conflict and some mystery. It is a narrative device – but it’s all too recognisable, and one that allows for layers of meaning and intent to ramp up the tension.
The novel shines a spotlight on the awful pressures on young people to conform; women endure harrowing personal humiliations but are expected to ‘take a joke’; young men are groomed for a life of adult privilege and power. Some speak out, others pretend none of it happens.
It’s embarrassing, as a reader, to recall the self absorption of youth and the mistakes that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. At times, the characters’ behaviours reminded me of the hopeless, unhappy role playing of the characters in Sally Rooney’s Normal People.
Similarly, this novel is definitely one for its time: the issues around what constitutes consent in sexual situations is currently being examined in ways not seen before, as are power dynamics and the role of prestigious university colleges in grooming new generations of (potentially) abusive, or at least complicit, men and women.
The prose is beautiful, evocative and very moving at times:
I dived down and counted twelve dolphin kicks, resurfacing close to the moored boat. My body was warmer for the movement, but the morning froze on my face. It was cold enough to remind me, in every tingling pore, that I was, first and foremost, a physical thing. Before thought or feeling or reason, I was a stretch of skin, a bag of flesh, for the ocean to cradle or drown with indifference.Love and Virtue p160
The author states that she wrote this manuscript – her first novel – during the 2020 Covid lockdown in Australia. It was an excellent use of her time and whilst I have no wish for similar lockdowns to happen again, I do look forward to reading more of her work.
Love and Virtue was published in 2021 by Ultimo Press.
The first thing I love about this new novel by Wiradjuri author Anita Heiss is the title. Translating to ‘River of Dreams’ in English, it is in the Wiradjuri language, which is also sprinkled liberally throughout the narrative. What a privilege, to be given an opportunity to understand and experience words and phrases in the language of First Nations people.
The story starts with the drama and tragedy of the devastating 1852 Great Flood of the Marrambidya (Murrumbidgee River) in Gundagai, NSW. There are shocking losses of human and lives, property and livestock despite the heroic efforts of several men from the Aboriginal camp near the river, including Yarri, the father of the main character, Wagadhaany. She works for the Bailey family, a local White family. Yarri rescues his daughter and the two Bailey men who survived the flood, from their precarious perch on the roof of the house.
The river is a central theme of the novel, a presence both benevolent and destructive. It gives life and just as easily takes it away. The flood is important, as a real historical event that highlights the skill and courage of the Aboriginal rescuers, and also as a metaphor:
…as the canoe floats with effort to the shore, Yarri thinks about the two men there together; a naked White man and a barely clothed Black man are nothing but two men stuck in the middle of a devastating flood… A life is a life, he says over and over in his mind, knowing that the weather, the rain, the river don’t care what colour anyone is right now, and that in this moment they are equal. Yarri takes a deep breath and works his arms harder than he ever has, willing them both to bring both men to shore, and wishing they were both equals every day.Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p33
Louisa is the other main character: a young Quaker woman who has been recently widowed in the flood, she meets and marries James, the eldest of the two surviving Baileys. Her Quaker beliefs lead her to wish for an equal relationship with the original people of the land, and she endeavours to achieve this with Wagadhaany.
So much gets in the way of a genuine friendship. Louisa is a good example of how well intentioned White people can still end up using relationships with First Nations people for their own purposes, while still desiring to act in a benevolent manner. The most obvious way that Louisa does this is to insist that Wagadhaany accompany the Baileys when they move to Wagga Wagga. Wagadhaany is devastated to lose connection with her mayagan, her family and the Country on which she was born and raised.
This allows the reader to try to understand something of the grief and loss experienced by First Nations people since colonisation:
How can she explain to Louisa, whose family chose to live on other people’s land, that she feels her sense of identity has been robbed, that everything that makes her Wagadhaany, the dancer, has been taken from her?Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray p162
Louisa is in many ways a sympathetic character, and in making her so, the author goes beyond the stomach-turning racism and cruelty perpetrated by Whites against First Nations people in this country, to explore some of the other ways in which racism manifests: the more subtle, systemic and insidious ways in which unequal power and racist assumptions play out.
Wagadhaany is an intelligent young woman, trying to assert her self and make sense of a world which has changed irrevocably for her people.
The irony is that, despite all her advantages and relative wealth, by the end of the novel Louisa is not necessarily the happier of the two women. Both characters face profound grief and loss. Wagadhaany’s connection to Country and kin help her to travel through these difficult events and by the end of the novel, there is space for hope.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray is a novel that uses real historic events to paint a picture of a colonial world which many Australians would prefer to either forget or romanticise. It’s a novel that made me think – always a good thing.
Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray was published by Simon & Schuster in 2021.
In the early morning of 16 October 1930, Oscar Garden set out from Croydon Aerodrome in South London in a second-hand, open-cockpit Gipsy Moth. On his feet he wore carpet slippers, and he had half a dozen sandwiches on his lap. His plan was to fly to Australia. He was 27 years old and had just learnt to fly, with a mere 39 flying hours under his belt.Sundowner of the Skies p11
This astonishing opening of Mary Garden’s biography and family memoir gives plenty of hints as to the story to come. The unlikely and dramatic adventure undertaken by her father when a young man, remains one of the great feats of early aviation, and Oscar Garden was also unusual in that he was one of the few early aviators who lived into old age.
Equally astonishing is the admission that he was more or less forgotten in the history of aviation, until quite recently, when his daughter Mary Garden wrote articles and then, this book about her father’s career and their troubled, unsettled family life.
The book, short-listed for the 2020 NSW Premier’s History Awards, gives readers insights into the romance and danger of those early years in aviation. We are now so accustomed to the criss-crossing of the skies by international and domestic airlines (at least until the Covid pandemic hit) that we can forget what a risky and uncomfortable business powered flight was in its early years. The exploits of those young aviators who broke records, took passengers up on joyflights, and piloted planes for the first commercial airlines, raised the public’s interest in flying and spurred the industry along.
Oscar Garden was one such, along with more famous names such as Charles Kingsford Smith, Amy Johnson, Bert Hinkler and Charles Lindbergh. There is now a portrait of Oscar in New Zealand’s Tauranga Airport, which was installed there in 2019. Before that, few would have known of Oscar Garden or his achievement.
According to his daughter, this was partly because, after a stint as a pilot for the forerunner of Air New Zealand, Oscar retired from the aviation industry and never flew a plane again, preferring to grow tomatoes in his adopted country, New Zealand.
There is much of interest in this book: the descriptions of the amazing exploits of early aviators (including a delightful reference to one woman who completed a long-haul solo flight in a skirt and pearls); the forced landings in dangerous circumstances; the fact that Oscar told no-one of his flight plan because he didn’t want to be talked out of it, and completed the whole thing on a shoe-string budget; the fact that early flights were navigated by a simple compass and what was known as ‘dead reckoning’. Amazing stuff.
For me, though, the most engrossing aspect of the story is the family history behind it. Oscar came from a wealthy Scottish merchant family, but family disputes and factions resulted in a troubled, restless, loner of a man who ended up suffering from mental ill-health and was unable to find any happiness in life. Mary’s recollections of her father and his relationships with others left her wondering ‘Who is this Oscar Garden?’ as she learnt more about his younger years.
It’s a poignant story of an emotionally frozen parent and a young adult trying to emerge from beneath his influence. The two Oscars – the adventurous youngster and the depressive older man and father – are woven together throughout the book, allowing the reader to experience some of the author’s confusion and ambiguity about the man who happened to be her father.
Sundowner of the Skies was published by New Holland Publishers in 2019.
My thanks to the author for a 2021 edition to read and review.
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.