Oh my word, what a bonza book! Sorry, had to do that (for those of you who haven’t read this, male lead Joe Harman says “oh my word” and “bonza” in abOh my word, what a bonza book! Sorry, had to do that (for those of you who haven’t read this, male lead Joe Harman says “oh my word” and “bonza” in about every other sentence [okay, not every other sentence, but a noticeable amount]).
So, this is one of those books I had completely the wrong idea about. First off, I thought Nevil Shute was a woman. Don’t ask me why. I knew Nevil was a male name. Second, I thought this book would be all about a small town in outback Australia, most likely in Alice Springs itself. It’s not—it’s a lot more sweeping than that. Alice Springs, in fact, is barely in the book. The name references Jean’s eventual desire to build a town like Alice Springs.
I will say that Shute is not intimidated by all that authorly advice to “hook” the reader. Oh no, Shute begins with a lengthy digression about Jean’s ancestors and how the money she eventually inherits gets to her. Luckily, Shute picks up the action pretty soon after.
Once Jean herself came into the picture, the book becomes a lot better. Jean is a tough little cookie, but is so modest that she comes off at first as a normal, not terribly impressive secretary. And then you learn that she was the de facto leader of a group of women and children marched to exhaustion around Malaysia by Japanese soldiers during World War II. And when she inherits her wealth she returns to Malaysia (by herself!) to build a well and then tracks down the man she had fallen in love with who she thought was dead to Australia and then basically single-handedly makes the one-dirt-road Australian outback town of Willstown (where her love interest makes his home) into a viable, bustling place. So, yeah, Jean is no shrinking violet, even if her grandfather had such a low opinion of women that he didn’t want a single lady having complete access to her inheritance until she was thirty-five.
Joe Harman, the love interest, comes off in Malaysia as a lot more daring and rough-and-tumble than he ends up being in Australia. I mean, this guy did get crucified for stealing chickens to feed Jean and her ragtag bunch, which is pretty intense. But then he gets all shy and awkward when Jean catches up to him in Australia and doesn’t think he can/should convince a girl to return to the barren wilderness he ranches so doesn’t even try. Jean has to be the one to step up and tell him she will go back to Willstown and she will make it livable. Plus, all the “oh my words.” This is shallow, but I want my Australian outback men to be a bit more…manly. A bit more Hugh Jackman. Joe Harman was almost there, but not quite. I think because Shute really wanted to make an impressive female protagonist (which he did) so he didn’t want the main male to steal her thunder.
And now let’s talk about the racism. This book is, hands down, racist. I was actually impressed that the Japanese weren’t painted as uniformly awful, though none of the sympathetic Japanese got names and there was some of that “the white man will never understand the Oriental mind” bullshit. The real racism involved the Aboriginals. Not only is Joe’s nickname for Jean a racial slur for an Aboriginal (because she was tanned and ragged when he first encountered her) but all the Aboriginals in the story were simple, child-like, unreliable and obedient. Jean feels immensely sorry for a white man who is forced to marry an Aborignal because there aren’t enough white women around. Oh that poor dear! Also, the Aboriginal he marries doesn’t speak and carries a kitten around with her at all times which gives the impression she is not all mentally there. Jean also decides, as if it were completely normal, that her ice cream parlor will have to be segregated. There is no way that the town will accept young white girls serving Aboriginal men.
It is hard for me to tell how much of all this is Shute being racist and how much of it is Shute reflecting the time period. I think there are few books as good for giving a glimpse into outback Australia during the 1950s: the idea of England as “home” for the whites (even if they had never once been there), the need for a woman to keep up her reputation (because no man would let his wife and no woman would let her daughter patronize a business owned by a loose woman), the small-minded notions (businesses open on Sunday are suspect), the high male-to-female population and, of course, the racism towards the Aboriginals. Jean’s acceptance of segregation as practical is horrific to us now (as it should be) but very realistic for the character as a product of her time. ...more
This is the most self-consciously literary book I’ve read in a long, long time. At first it was really enjoyable – Winton is truly a talented writer aThis is the most self-consciously literary book I’ve read in a long, long time. At first it was really enjoyable – Winton is truly a talented writer and there were so many sentences that were just spot-on perfect descriptions. That’s amazingly hard to do – find exactly the right word or image. And Winton has that talent.
BUT this is like The Great Gatsby, where Fitzgerald labored over every idea and word to produce a book instead of a novel. Characters are used in the service of the book or theme, rather than to serve themselves. Everyone is fleshed out, but no one seems whole. This is a perfect English class book – but I feel it’s a little...much. By the halfway point I was like, “this story is still going on!?!?? Is the plot ever going to kick in? Are the characters ever going to evolve?” Ummm…nope.
The Lambs and the Pickles are two sides of the same coin. The Lambs are (ex)-religious folk, who believe in family and hardwork. They run a successful corner shop and have a rambunctious family of (mostly) happy children – although Fish became developmentally disabled after drowning and Quick lives the life of the guilt-ridden. The other children are some barely remembered gaggle of girls and a younger brother. The landlords are the Pickles, who are a deeply unhappy, barely functional family that believes in luck and personal pleasure – Sam is a charming gambler (horse races are his drug of choice) who is generous when he is flush, but usually he's lost everything. Dolly is a beautiful alcoholic who uses beer and strange men to make herself feel better. Both parents pretty much neglect their children. The boys are nonentities, but Rose Pickles is a priggish girl who reacts to the chaos of her home with a craving for order. She hates her mother and becomes anorexic just to spite her. Rose Pickles and Quick Lamb are essentially assigned to represent their generation in their respective families, since none of their siblings really have anything besides one-word personality traits (except the brain-damaged Fish, who gets a weird magical-realism place in this book). Rose and Quick are the only two characters that I think actually developed - the parents essentially stay who they were throughout the book, except softened a bit by age and tragedy.
Winton is a beautiful writer, but he needed to end the book a good hundred pages earlier and actually develop his characters instead of using them as props....more