The Night Ship by Jess Kidd

Jess Kidd’s Things in Jars was one of my books of the year in 2019. I don’t think her new novel, The Night Ship, will achieve the same honour this year, but it’s still a book that I enjoyed very much. It takes as its starting point a real historical event – a 17th century shipwreck – and uses it to tell the stories of two children whose lives are separated by more than three hundred years.

In 1629, a nine-year-old Dutch girl, Mayken, is sailing to the Dutch East Indies aboard the Batavia, accompanied by her nursemaid. It’s a long journey and Mayken occupies herself by exploring the ship and getting to know some of the passengers and crew. When one of her new friends tells her about the legendary eel-like monster known as Bullebak, Mayken becomes convinced that Bullebak is the cause of everything bad that is happening aboard the ship and she sets out to capture the monster in a jug.

In 1989, nine-year-old Gil arrives on an island off the west coast of Australia to live with his grandfather following the death of his mother. Gil is a lonely child who has never fit in and he struggles to settle into his new life on the island. He finds some comfort in playing with his best friend, the tortoise Enkidu, and in watching the work of the scientists who have come to the island to investigate the wreck of the Batavia.

The stories of Gil and Mayken alternate throughout the novel so that we spend about the same amount of time with each of them. It soon becomes clear that although the two children are leading very different lives, there are also some parallels between them. Not only will Mayken’s ship be wrecked on Gil’s island, both children have recently lost their mother and are trying to come to terms with this. They are also both drawn to the tales of monsters who appear in their national folklore – for Mayken, it’s Bullebak, and for Gil, the Bunyip. However, I had expected the two storylines to tie together more closely at the end and was slightly disappointed that this didn’t really happen.

I knew nothing about the fate of the people on board the Batavia before I read this book and if you’re not familiar with it either I recommend not looking it up until you’ve finished. It wasn’t actually the shipwreck story that interested me the most, though – I found that I was drawn much more to Gil than to Mayken, despite Mayken’s storyline being more dramatic. Poor Gil has such a difficult time and parts of his story are heartbreaking. I should probably point out here that although both protagonists are young children, this is not a children’s book and is quite harrowing even for an adult to read! I must go back and read Jess Kidd’s earlier novels now; I meant to do that after finishing Things in Jars and never did.

Thanks to Canongate for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

This is book 39/50 read for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2022.

The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton

There are many events taking place in the book blogging calendar this month and AusReading Month hosted by Brona’s Books is one of them. I have a few books by Australian authors waiting to be read, but I decided to read one that has been waiting a long time: Kate Morton’s 2012 novel, The Secret Keeper. I’ve previously read three books by Morton and had mixed experiences with them; I loved The Forgotten Garden but was slightly disappointed in both The Distant Hours and The Clockmaker’s Daughter, so wasn’t sure whether I wanted to bother with this one. I’m pleased I did, because I enjoyed it much more than I expected to.

Like Morton’s other books, The Secret Keeper is set in multiple time periods. It begins in 1961, with sixteen-year-old Laurel Nicolson hiding in a wooden tree house during a family celebration. Laurel just wants some time alone to think, but this means that, from her position in the tree, she is able to see a strange man approaching the Nicolson farmhouse – and is witness to a violent crime involving her mother, Dorothy. We then jump forward fifty years to 2011, when the Nicolsons are gathering at their childhood home for Dorothy’s ninetieth birthday. Laurel, now a successful actress, is still haunted by what she saw on that long ago day and decides that, with Dorothy in poor health, she needs to find out what really happened before her mother dies and takes her secrets with her.

As Laurel begins to investigate her mother’s past, the novel moves back and forth between 2011 and 1940s London where the young Dorothy is looking forward to marrying war photographer Jimmy as soon as their financial situation improves. Dorothy has also made a new friend (or so she thinks): the beautiful, wealthy Vivien, who lives in the house opposite. But when she is betrayed by Vivien, Dorothy puts together a plan of revenge – with unexpected and tragic results.

As is usually the case when I read books set in more than one time period, it was the historical one I enjoyed the most. The present day story was interesting – I enjoyed Laurel’s interactions with her younger brother Gerry, who helps her to uncover the truth about their mother – but I felt that it was effectively just a frame for the much more compelling story of Dorothy, Jimmy and Vivien. I was surprised by how absorbed I became in these parts of the novel, considering that I found Dorothy a particularly unpleasant and irritating character! I did like Jimmy, was intrigued by Vivien and loved the wartime setting, especially as things build to a climax during the London Blitz.

Somewhere in the second half of the book I started to have some suspicions regarding Laurel’s mother and the secrets she was hiding, but this came late enough that it didn’t spoil my enjoyment of the story and I was pleased to find that my guess was correct. Of Kate Morton’s other books, I only have The House at Riverton and The Lake House left to read. Which should I read first?

The Boy with Blue Trousers by Carol Jones

I love learning about the histories and cultures of different countries, so I was pleased to find that Australian author Carol Jones’ new novel, The Boy with Blue Trousers, is set in not one location but two – the mulberry groves of China and the goldfields of Australia – and introduces us to two women leading very different lives.

In 1850s China, seventeen-year-old Little Cat is growing up in a small village on the Pearl River Delta. Like the other girls in her community, she spends her days picking mulberry leaves and teasing out the threads from silkworm cocoons to produce reels of silk. It’s hard work, but it is the only life Little Cat has known and, now that she is approaching adulthood, she is growing nervous about what the future may hold. What sort of marriage will the matchmaker arrange for her? Will her husband and his family be kind? Will she have to go and live in another village far away from her own?

In the end, though, none of these things matter to Little Cat, because a disastrous encounter with the village headman, Big Wu, forces her to flee the country in fear of her life. Disguised as a boy, she embarks on a ship bound for Australia where she will join the hundreds of men heading there from China who are hoping to make their fortune in the goldfields.

Meanwhile, another young woman, Violet Hartley, has recently arrived in Australia. Violet, a governess, is trying to escape from her own past in England, and Australia seems like a place full of opportunities. When her first job, looking after two small children, proves to be not quite what she’d hoped for, she decides to accompany the Chinese immigrants on their journey – a decision that leads to her path crossing with Little Cat’s and tying the two separate threads of the story together.

The Boy with Blue Trousers is written in the form of two alternating narratives, so that we spend one or two chapters with Little Cat before switching to Violet for a while and then back again. This allows us to get to know both characters equally well and to see how, although they are living in very different environments, they face similar struggles as unconventional, independent women who don’t conform to the expectations of their respective societies. I have to admit, I didn’t like Violet at all; while I did have sympathy for her situation and the loss of her reputation following an affair with a married man in England – unfair when the man involved didn’t suffer in the same way – I just didn’t find her a very appealing character, especially in comparison to Little Cat, whom I loved.

I had a few problems with this book – apart from not liking Violet, I thought the way in which her story came together with Little Cat’s and the reaction they had to each other felt odd and unconvincing – but I was impressed by the sense of place Carol Jones creates. I particularly liked the descriptions of the mulberry trees, river banks, alleys and courtyards of Sandy Bottom Village, Little Cat’s home in the Pearl River Delta, but the coastal landscape of Robetown in South Australia is also beautifully portrayed.

Carol Jones is not an author I’ve come across until now, but I see she has written another novel, The Concubine’s Child, set in Malaysia, which also sounds interesting. If any of you have read that one, let me know what you thought.

Thanks to Head of Zeus for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley

The Pearl Sister is the fourth book in Lucinda Riley’s Seven Sisters series based loosely on the mythology of the Pleiades (or ‘seven sisters’) star cluster. There will eventually be seven novels each telling the story of one of the adopted daughters of a mysterious millionaire known as Pa Salt.

The girls, who are all from very different backgrounds and who grew up together in Switzerland on Pa Salt’s Lake Geneva estate, are named after the stars in the cluster – Maia, Alycone (Ally), Asterope (Star), Celaeno (CeCe), Taygete (Tiggy) and Electra D’Aplièse. There should have been a seventh sister, whose name would have been Merope, but for some reason which has not yet been revealed only six girls were adopted rather than seven. Pa Salt dies at the beginning of the series, leaving each sister some clues to help them trace their real parents, if they wish to do so.

The books could be read in any order as they all work as standalones, with only a small amount of overlap. The first book in the series, The Seven Sisters, tells Maia’s story, the second, The Storm Sister, tells Ally’s, and the third, The Shadow Sister, concentrates on Star. This time it’s CeCe’s turn. CeCe and Star are nearly the same age, being adopted as babies just a few months apart, and have always had a very close relationship. In the previous novel we saw the shy, quiet Star stepping out from CeCe’s shadow to build a life of her own, while The Pearl Sister begins with CeCe feeling rejected and left behind as Star moves on.

Pa Salt has left CeCe the name of an Australian pioneer and a black and white photograph to point her on her way, so she sets off for Australia, stopping in Thailand for a few weeks first. Following a trail which she hopes will lead to her own birth family, CeCe makes some discoveries which help her to understand who she really is.

CeCe’s story is set in the modern day, but we also follow the story of another woman and this one takes place in the early part of the twentieth century. It’s 1906 and Kitty McBride has left her home in Edinburgh to travel to Australia as a lady’s companion. Here she meets the Mercer family, who own both a pearl business and a cattle station, and becomes entangled with twin brothers Drummond and Andrew Mercer. When it becomes obvious that both of them are hoping to marry Kitty, she will have a big decision to make. Her choice will affect not only her own life but the lives of future generations as well.

Having read most of Lucinda Riley’s novels now, I think she deals with multiple time periods very well, spending long enough in each one for us to become fully immersed in the story before switching to the other. I enjoyed both of the storylines, but Kitty’s was more dramatic, filled with plot twists and surprises (as well as one or two coincidences which I thought stretched things a bit too far, although that wasn’t a big problem). I loved reading about Kitty’s involvement in the pearl industry and about her friendship with another strong and courageous woman, her maid Camira. CeCe’s storyline kept me turning the pages too. There’s a subplot involving a man she meets in Thailand which feels slightly disconnected from the rest of the story, but once she leaves Thailand and arrives in Australia things become more interesting.

Until I read this book, CeCe was one of my least favourites of the sisters; because of the way she behaved whenever we saw her together with Star, I thought she was a bossy and controlling person, but it seems I had misjudged her. In this novel, we see a very different side of CeCe and discover just how dependent she had been on Star. She has a lot of insecurities as a result of her dyslexia and her appearance – she is convinced that her sisters are all much prettier than she is – and after a bad experience at art college she has even lost confidence in her abilities as an artist. As she gets closer to discovering her roots, CeCe begins to grow as a person; she finds some independence, makes new friends and enters into new relationships. The CeCe we leave behind at the end of the book seems a much happier person than the one we met at the start!

Earlier this week I said that I wanted to incorporate more books set outside my own country into my reading this year. The Pearl Sister takes place in two: Thailand and Australia. I particularly enjoyed the Australian settings – Broome and then Alice Springs – and I was as interested as Kitty and CeCe in learning about the history and culture of the Aboriginal people.

Having had the chance to get to know four of the D’Aplièse sisters now, I’m looking forward to the next two books on Tiggy and Electra.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a copy of this book for review.

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

As well as taking part in German Literature Month this November, I also wanted to read something for Brona’s Australia Reading Month. I haven’t read many Australian books or authors and this is something I want to change, as discussed in a recent Historical Musings post. Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek was one of the books I needed to read for my Walter Scott Prize project so seemed like the perfect choice.

Salt Creek is set in the 19th century and narrated by Hester Finch, who is fifteen years old as the novel opens in 1855. Having been leading a comfortable lifestyle in Adelaide, the family have fallen on hard times and Hester’s father has decided that they should move to the Coorong region of South Australia where they can try to build a new life for themselves farming the land. Arriving at Salt Creek in the Coorong, however, they find that things are not going to be easy. The landscape is beautiful but desolate, the land is difficult to tame and their Aboriginal neighbours view the newcomers with suspicion.

Hester’s mother, who has been depressed for some time, struggles to adapt and Hester, as the eldest daughter, finds herself taking on more responsibilities around the house. When the chance of freedom comes her way, will she take it or are the ties binding her to Salt Creek too strong? Meanwhile, the efforts of her father and brothers to work the land and make it suitable for farming bring them into conflict with the indigenous Ngarrindjeri people who have made the Coorong their home for generations.

Acting as a bridge between the two cultures is Tull, a boy from a local tribe who is welcomed into the Finch family and grows up with Hester and her brothers and sisters.

That winter I began to notice how differently he saw almost everything compared to us. Mama might say that the colours of winter reminded her of the highlands of Scotland, and I might say that the sky was sapphire or that the washing lines were like cobwebs on a cold morning. Hearing these things perplexed him, as did so much else – the encumbrances of our clothing, our impractical hair, our heavy boots, the fences that we built – which he made apparent by his stillness or his incredulity…

Tull’s relationship with the Finches is one of the most interesting aspects of the story. They come from such different worlds, yet find shared ground and common interests, giving hope that the wider groups they represent – the Aboriginal people and the white settlers – may be able to cooperate and work together. However, it is through Tull that Hester becomes aware of the harm the arrival of her family is doing to the Ngarrindjeri and to the environment.

The story itself has a bleakness to match the harshness of the landscape. Most of the characters experience little or no happiness, enduring poverty, the death and loss of loved ones, prejudice, betrayal and the breakdown of trust. It’s such a sad and tragic story – and yet I didn’t feel quite the emotional connection to Hester that I would have liked. I’m not sure why that should be, but I didn’t become fully invested in Hester’s personal story until I was well into the second half of the book. I don’t think it helped that the author chose to write part of the novel from the perspective of an older Hester living in England and looking back on her life. A more linear timeline might have worked better for me.

Still, Salt Creek is a beautifully written novel, with some lovely, vivid descriptions of the Coorong. Here is Hester having her first glimpse of her new home:

There was little enough to see – dry grasses and low shrubs in sweeps down to the lagoon, an arm of contorted trees hugging the slope from the low ridge and modest folds of land – a bed risen from like my own and its covers pushed back to hold the warmth of night. The colours were not intrinsic. A dry grass stem in shadow could be as drab as sightless eyes or gold in sunlight or silver in moonlight, but I did not know that then.

This was a good choice for the Reading Month; I loved the blend of fact and fiction (Lucy Treloar explains this in her author’s note) and the insights it gave me into life in South Australia, a place I knew very little about until now. I’m sure I’ll be picking up more Australian fiction soon!

Historical Musings #30: Exploring Australia

In a comment on my last Historical Musings post – on the subject of nautical fiction – Yvonne mentioned that books set in Australia often feature a sea voyage, which is understandable as transportation (the relocation of prisoners) played such a big part in Australian history. I hadn’t read any of the books Yvonne referred to – and this made me think of how few historical fiction novels set in Australia I have actually read!

I have searched through my blog archives and it seems that the only Australian historical novels I have reviewed are The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally, about two sisters from the Macleay Valley who serve with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War, and The Light Between Oceans by ML Stedman, the story of a lighthouse keeper and his wife living on a remote island off the coast of Australia in the 1920s. There’s also The Ghost Writer by John Harwood, but that book is only partially set in Australia and not entirely historical either, although it does include some wonderful 19th century ghost stories!

Thinking of books that I read in the years before I started blogging, the only ones that come to mind are Colleen McCullough’s family saga, The Thorn Birds, and All the Rivers Run by Nancy Cato (of which I can remember nothing other than that I enjoyed it at the time). I obviously need to read more Australian novels! I found an interesting list at Goodreads but I’ve only heard of a few of those books…so where should I start?

Can you recommend any good historical fiction set in Australia?

~

New to my historical fiction shelves since last month’s post:

* The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
* The Autumn Throne by Elizabeth Chadwick
* The Snow Globe by Judith Kinghorn
* The Crow Garden by Alison Littlewood
* Snowdrift and Other Stories by Georgette Heyer
* The Last Hours by Minette Walters
* The Pearl Sister by Lucinda Riley
* The Stolen Marriage by Diane Chamberlain

Have you added any new historical fiction to your TBR recently?

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars Until I picked up The Daughters of Mars in the library I was only really aware of Thomas Keneally as the author of Schindler’s Ark (which I haven’t read), the book on which the film Schindler’s List was based. I was surprised to find that he has written more than forty other books (both fiction and non-fiction) and I’m pleased that I’ve finally read one. The Daughters of Mars is the story of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who serve as nurses with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War. I had a few problems with the book, mainly due to the unusual writing style, but it gave me lots of fascinating insights into the challenges facing wartime nurses.

When we first meet the Durance sisters, they are leading very different lives: Naomi has left home and has gone to work at a hospital in Sydney, while Sally has remained on the family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley and is caring for their sick mother. The two girls have little in common other than a love of nursing but an unwelcome bond is formed between them when their mother dies under tragic circumstances. Deciding to get away for a while from Australia and the memories it holds, they enlist on the hospital ship Archimedes. Sailing first to Egypt and then to the Dardanelles, the sisters are kept busy treating casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign and as the war progresses, they find themselves in separate hospitals on the Western Front where they face the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks.

The work is demanding, dangerous and emotionally draining, but also very rewarding. As well as learning new skills, both girls find new friends among the other young nurses and meet the men they hope to spend the rest of their lives with. Of course, nothing is certain in times of war and there’s no guarantee that either they or the men they love will survive long enough for marriage to become a possibility. And the most important relationship of all – the one between Naomi and Sally – will remain tense and strained until the sisters can find a way to put the past behind them.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading The Daughters of Mars, but I did find it interesting to learn about the work of the Australian nurses, which is something I haven’t read about before. Most of what we hear about the Great War involves stories of men fighting on the front lines, but it’s important to remember the important contribution of these brave women who also played their part in helping the war effort. While I have read British author Vera Brittain’s first-hand account of life as a wartime nurse, Testament of Youth (which I highly recommend), this is the first time I’ve read about the same subject from an Australian perspective. It was fascinating, although if you’re squeamish I should warn you that Sally and Naomi are faced with all kinds of gruesome battle wounds, injuries and illnesses – and they are described in a lot of detail, along with the medical procedures and surgical operations that are used to treat them.

Now I need to explain what I didn’t like about this book and it’s something that’s really a matter of personal taste. In his author’s note, Keneally tells us that if the use of punctuation in the novel sometimes seems unusual it’s because he has taken inspiration from ‘the forgotten private journals of the Great War, written by men and women who frequently favoured dashes rather than commas’. The dashes didn’t bother me, but the lack of quotation marks did! We use punctuation to indicate speech for a reason and because it wasn’t there I found that the text didn’t flow properly, which made it unnecessarily difficult to read. I felt that I was viewing the events of the story from a distance and never fully engaged with either Durance sister. In fact, I found most of the characters quite bland and difficult to tell apart. There was none of the passion and emotion that I would have expected from a book like this.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the book (as I said, wartime nursing is not a subject I know much about) but it does seem to have been very well researched and covers almost every aspect of the war you can think of from conscription and conscientious objectors to shell shock and the Spanish flu. Despite the problems I had with Keneally’s writing, I found the story interesting enough to keep reading until I reached the end. And what an intriguing ending it was! Unfortunately I can’t tell you what was so special about it, but it was completely unexpected and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not – it’s the sort of ending that will leave you wondering why the author chose to end the book in that way and what message he wanted us to take from it.

If anyone has read any other Thomas Keneally books, let me know if you think I should try another one. Are his other books written in a more conventional style?