A beautifully immersive story celebrating a journey into the wonderful landscape of Australia with intriguing characters that wrestle with its wildness and their own self-discovery. Alison Booth uniquely characterises the landscape giving it energy with features of beauty and harshness at the heart of the story. As two young female protagonists journey from a sheltered life in 1890s London to precarious hardships and dangers in Australia’s outback, the shift from comfort to labour and an awakening of real human issues and injustices becomes apparent.
Sarah and Harriet Cameron are two adult sisters living in the family home with their father James, who is a renowned moral philosopher. Harriet, as her father’s aid, is drawn more into politics and in particular women’s rights, while also espousing to be a painter. Both sisters have marriage suitors; Henry Vincent and Charles Barclay. In time Sarah and Henry get married and leave for Australia so Henry can take up a position as a stock and station agent in Sydney. Once there Henry gets an offer to take a cattle station manager role in the remote outpost of Dimbulah Downs, in the Northern Territory.
“Dimbulah Downs was such an evocative name. … The countryside had looked wild and exotic, the gorges dramatic, the Aboriginal faces full of character. At the prospect of seeing the place for herself, she felt a squirm of excitement in her stomach.”
Sarah and Henry relocate for a six-month contract full of ambition and excitement to manage the station. The realisation sets in that the Aboriginal work hands aren’t always treated humanely with many landowners and the law is slow if not indifferent to crimes carried out against them. Alison places an Aborigine, Mick, close to Henry’s daily work and his family, which creates an opportunity to play the fears, culture and prejudices in a very telling setting.
After Harriet’s father dies she suddenly feels the weight of an unfulfilled life and the possibility of a marriage to Charles, that she doesn’t really want. In a moment of a decision, she books a boat ticket to Australia leaving in in two weeks and urgently settles her things and leaves with the trepidation that a new beginning brings. The trip to Australia is eventful with a shocking moment and the onward journey to Dimbulah Downs is cautious but she is finally reunited with Sarah.
Over the next period, Harriet and Sarah grow in appreciation of nature and the ugliness and kindness of people. The interactions with the Aborigines and in particular Mick helps Harriet reignite her love of painting and she suddenly realises how channelling her emotions and feelings create art that stands above everything that went before. A harsh landscape also provides wonderful beauty, capturing the way the sun plays with colours at dusk and dawn.
There are moments of drama but the pace of the novel is more relaxed and sets out to captivate and enthral with an expressive narrative delivered with wonderful writing. It was great to see the involvement of the indigenous Australian people and exposing many of the horrible issues they faced with colonialism. The closeness of white and Aboriginal relationships at that time would have caused concern but when people are individuals, love knows no boundaries.
I would highly recommend this book of historical fiction and as a change of pace from my norm this was a happy and fulfilling read.