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.
I always enjoy novels about families. The sticky-beak in me enjoys peering into the domestic dramas of others – a bit like glancing through a window to see the activities, furnishings and colour choices of unknown residents as you walk past.
The blurb for When Grace Went Away describes the Fairley family, around which the story revolves, as ‘functionally dysfunctional’, which really means a very normal family, in my opinion at least. We follow Grace, eldest daughter of Sarah and Doug, who her younger brother Tim describes as ‘corporate suit on a six-figure salary.’ There is envy of Grace’s corporate banking career, her job offer in London, her expensive SUV. Tim remains stuck on the hard-scrabble farm north of Adelaide with his father, longing for a different life but not knowing how to break away. His father, Doug, is bitter – about lots of things but especially about the death in an accident eight years ago of his youngest son Luke, and the way his wife left him and the farm three years later.
Faith, another sibling, is also angry that Sarah left. Never mind that her mother spent three years (unsuccessfully) trying to reach her husband emotionally so that they could grieve their son together. Or that since she moved to Adelaide, with Grace’s financial and emotional support, Sarah faced a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Faith refuses to engage with her mother or allow her two young children to see their grandmother.
So, this is a family with a whole lot going on, much of it (though not all of it) stemming from Luke’s death. Grace returns occasionally to her childhood home town of Miner’s Ridge, a small community in South Australia, and this is where the novel opens. She is trying to pluck up the courage to tell her father that in a couple of weeks she will be in London, tackling what she hopes will be an exciting new job and life. But we meet Grace throwing up in the toilet of the local pub after having a few too many wines while waiting for her perennially late brother Tim to join her. This visit ‘home’ does not start well and sets the tone for the rest of the family interactions.
She meets Aaron on this trip, and he forms the basis of an important romantic thread and the catalyst which propels Grace to make some hard decisions – about her life, her job, her home, family and other relationships. Other characters fill out the small town atmosphere of Miner’s Ridge (where everyone knows everyone’s business) and the equally enmeshed though more glamorous corporate world of London. They are brought to vivid life and very recognisable – especially if you have spent any time in either of those types of settings.
Grace’s predicament is also recognisable – a very common one in the complicated world of today – torn between career and family, opportunity and duty.
Grace is a sympathetic character but I found myself relating more to Sarah, her mother – perhaps because some of my own experiences are more akin to hers and we are closer in age. I was especially moved by the portrayal of the decline and death of Sarah’s elderly mum, her grief as she cleared out her mother’s room in the nursing home, her sadness that:
All that was left of Mum were the memories – and a suitcase and a cardboard box, both sitting in the back of Grace’s SUV. How sad was that? All that was left of her life fit into the back of my daughter’s car.When Grace Went Away p104
I well remember that feeling from when my father passed away.
For me this is one of the strengths of the novel: exploring experiences and emotions common to many, so that we, along with the characters, reflect on what is important to us. Grace’s brother Tim, sums this up well:
I’ve learned that we all need to work out who, and what, are truly important in our lives. Then we need to look after what we have, and go all out for what we want. Doesn’t mean we’ll always get it…but at least we will have tried.When Grace went Away p328
When Grace Went Away is published 2020 by HQ Fiction. Thanks to the publishers for a copy to read and review.
I’ve always enjoyed looking at my mother’s photos of her life in Sydney in the late 1940’s. A young, single woman, she made her living working in a Surrey Hills dressmaking business, and her photos included outings with her workmates, all dressed up in bright, pretty frocks (which they sewed themselves) enjoying life in the immediate postwar time. They looked free from the worries and hardships that had plagued Australians during the long, hard war years.
Photos only tell part of the story, of course. The apparently carefree expressions of the young women in my mother’s photos no doubt hid a multitude of troubles: financial worries, scars (both visible and invisible) carried by family members who served in the armed forces, grief for those who did not return, lingering shortages of food, fabrics, fuel and other necessities.
It is these realities that feature in The Women’s Pages and make this novel’s portrayal of post-war Sydney life so convincing. The story opens on ‘Victory in the Pacific Day’ in August 1945. The main character, Tilly Galloway, observes the delirium of victory and the end of the war, in her role as a war correspondent for a major Sydney newspaper. The celebrations across the city last through the night and Tilly records all she sees and hears for her story.
Tilly is a young woman who has shared the wartime hardships and grief of so many. Her young husband Archie disappeared during his service in New Guinea, and is presumed to have been taken prisoner of war by the Japanese. Similarly, her flatmate Mary is longing for the return of her own husband, a prisoner at the notorious Changi prison camp. Tilly’s father is a waterside worker, with failing health and bitter, recent memories of the ‘Hungry Mile’, where desperate men thronged Sydney’s docks area, hoping to be chosen for a day’s work during the Depression years. (This area is now the Barangaroo development, housing restaurants, bars, offices and upmarket accommodation – a very different space from the grime and grit of its working class waterfront origins.) Money is tight for most people in Tilly’s world, and wartime shortages and rationing not yet eased.
In addition, Tilly experiences the sexism and opposition of male colleagues who sexually harass, dismiss and disrespect women – and pay them less than the men. The scenes in which Tilly and other women confront these behaviours echo parts of Natasha Lester’s 2019 novel The French Photographer, which chronicles similar struggles faced by female war correspondents in the US and Europe during the same period.
In The Women’s Pages, Tilly pushes hard to be allowed to cover the war but is only allowed to go as far as Darwin on a tour for female correspondents. When the war ends, she is relegated to stories about the ‘home front’ and things to do with women – though she knows that women want to read about much more than fashion and dinner parties. She is also confronted by the shocking inequities in the way different people are treated – war widows, those women who took on ‘men’s jobs’ during the war years, and those men physically or psychologically damaged by their wartime experiences (and their wives and families).
While one might have thought the war had been a great equaliser, given death knew no class or rank distinction, Tilly realised that the war had only cemented Sydney’s social strata, not shattered it… Her anger at the inequality made bile rise in her throat.The Women’s Pages p363
Reading about the ways in which Australians battled grief, anxiety and poverty was a timely reminder, in these COVID19 days, that being separated from loved ones, ‘making do’ with what you have, shortages in shops, coping with constant worry and uncertainty, and adjusting to new routines, are not unique to our time. There is even mention of the suspension of international and national cricket competitions – shades of the tumult faced in recent times by athletes and sporting groups around the world. If I didn’t know how long it takes to get a manuscript written, edited and published, I’d almost suspect that Victoria Purman began work on this novel just months ago!
As news of atrocities committed in all theatres of war begin to filter through, Tilly realises that the suffering of so many – those returning from the front and those waiting for them at home – will continue. There is no instant fix and no guarantee that Australians can resume their previous lives anytime soon. Purman paints a vivid picture of the social and emotional upheavals confronting all Australians in this period. Her heroine, Tilly, and Tilly’s family, friends and colleagues, are believable and sympathetic characters. I cared about them. And Tilly’s decision to do what she can to address the injustices she sees, made me cheer.
The Women’s Pages will appeal to readers who enjoy their historical fiction firmly rooted in reality, and who like learning about the past while they get lost in a well told story.
The Women’s Pages will be published by HQ Fiction, an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises (Harper Collins) in September 2020.
Thanks to HQ Fiction for an advance copy to read and review.