‘Her head hit the floorboards, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade.’
It is 1874. Tasmania is in transition from it‘Her head hit the floorboards, bounced, and a fog of ash billowed, thrown so by the motion of her spade.’
It is 1874. Tasmania is in transition from its penal origins: transportation ceased in 1853. But while the ruling classes are focussed on the structure and law of their society and increasing their wealth, there are a significant number of people struggling for their existence. Many are former convicts. In early 1874, pandemonium broke out in Launceston. The government had imposed a levy on those living near the Deloraine-Launceston railway line after the collapse of the company that built it. Those who riot cause damage, but cannot prevail against the large and well-armed police force.
‘The rioting was confined to the rabble and larrikin classes, scarcely any ratepayer taking part.’ (The Mercury, 9 February 1874)
This is the background to the events in Rohan Wilson’s novel. William Toosey is 12 years old when his mother dies suddenly. He writes to his father Thomas, asking for help. Thomas Toosey (who appeared as a boy in Rohan Wilson’s first novel ‘The Roving Party’) is a grey-haired labourer who has spent 10 years in the Port Arthur Penitentiary, convicted of a dreadful crime. He has stolen £200 in banknotes from Fitheal Flynn, with whom he was in prison, and his three daughters. In short, although Toosey sets off for Launceston to find his son, he appears to be beyond redemption. Flynn, accompanied by one of his daughters, disguised as a male and covered by a hood, sets off after Toosey. Sure, he wants his money back but there’s more to the story than that. Flynn and Toosey are both fathers seeking to make amends for their actions in the past by making provision for their children. Toosey is desperate to find William, and acutely aware of the dangers that befall orphans in the streets. Flynn is keen to track down Toosey: he wants his own retribution.
Rohan Wilson brings the Launceston of the 1870s to life: from Cimitiere Street through the City Park to Princes Square, along Brisbane Street and Charles Street, across Windmill Hill and then later back through the town and across the river into the slums of Invermay. The place and street names remain, and much of the landscape is recognisable today. It’s a dark, bleak story brilliantly told, set in a dark time in Launceston’s colonial history.
‘History is the art by which we live our lives, he said. You have your history and I have mine.’
‘I wanted to cry, but it wouldn’t look good – the new boss crying on her first day of work, April Fools’ Day, no less.’
Thea Dari-Jones, forty and sing‘I wanted to cry, but it wouldn’t look good – the new boss crying on her first day of work, April Fools’ Day, no less.’
Thea Dari-Jones, forty and single, takes over as the Officer in Charge of the Thursday Island Police Station on April Fools’ Day. She’s dreaming of a relaxed lifestyle: after all, her research has shown that there is not a lot of crime on the island. Thea has ties to Thursday Island (TI): her mother was a local, and she’s keen to know more about the island and its people. But there are tensions on TI, some fuelled by alcohol and others by beliefs in maydh (black magic) which have some islanders claiming that others have committed crimes against them. There’s a cultural minefield for Thea to negotiate, and that’s before Thea is made aware that a local woman has gone missing.
‘Not even a small idyllic island was immune to violent crime.’
The missing woman is found, murdered, and then Thea has to try to find out who the murderer is. A suspect is identified - can it be as simple as it looks on the surface?
‘Apart from the unsolved murder hanging over my head, the policing life I originally imagined on TI began to materialise over the next month or so.’
Meanwhile, Thea is settling into life on TI and when she meets Jonah, a local fisherman, her life seems complete. Or is it? And how will Thea’s mother find TI when she comes to visit for a month?
This novel starts as a crime novel, but by mid-way through the focus is more on Thea and her personal life than on her professional responsibilities. Usually, that would be enough to diminish my interest in the story, but I was already hooked. There are some fascinating characters on Ms Titasey’s Thursday Island, and some great cultural and culinary observations (especially if you like curry).
I hope that Ms Titasey writes another novel about Thea and Thursday Island.
‘In south-western Sydney, on a chilly winter’s night, a siege is in progress.’
Welcome to a day in the life of Sydney Detective Harry Belltree: a meth-‘In south-western Sydney, on a chilly winter’s night, a siege is in progress.’
Welcome to a day in the life of Sydney Detective Harry Belltree: a meth-addicted bikie shoots a woman during a police siege; an elderly couple commit suicide sitting outside their favourite café; and an unidentified white man is stabbed to death in the street. When the stabbing victim is identified as his brother-in-law Greg, his life becomes even more complicated. Especially after journalist Kelly Pool suggests that the three incidents may – somehow – be linked. Harry is still coming to terms with a car accident that killed his parents and blinded his wife, and while he can’t officially get involved in investigating Greg’s murder, that isn’t going to stop him. And when he finds that Greg and the elderly couple have links to a crooked moneylender, he’s determined to find out what really happened. Harry soon suspects that there may be a link to the death of his parents, which drives him (and Kelly Pool) into some dangerous and risky behaviour.
Crucifixion Creek is the first book of the Belltree trilogy, and Harry Belltree is a very different detective from both of Mr Maitland’s London based detectives, David Brock and Kathy Kolla. He’s impulsive, and not afraid of cutting corners to find out what he needs to know. Will the ends always justify the means?
There’s a lot of action in this novel, and plenty of tension, as Harry Belltree – with some help from Kelly Pool, his wife and others - sets out to find the truth behind the killers. There’s a fair amount of coincidence and good luck as well, but that didn’t affect my reading of the story, just my assessment of the probability of Harry Belltrees’s actions.
I’m not sure whether I’ll enjoy the Belltrees Trilogy as much as I enjoy the Brock and Kolla series, but I’m very keen to see where the next novel takes the characters.
‘It makes us feel we are helping just a bit, and the wonderful self-denial and courage of them all the time, all the time!’
In July 1917, Sister Alice‘It makes us feel we are helping just a bit, and the wonderful self-denial and courage of them all the time, all the time!’
In July 1917, Sister Alice Ross-King was on duty at the Second Australian Casualty Clearing Station near Armentieres in France when the Germans began bombarding the hospital. Sister Ross-King had been called to see a patient delirious with pneumonia and was following an orderly, Private John Wilson, along the duckboards when a bomb exploded near them.
In her diary, Sister Ross-King later recorded that: ‘The noise was so terrific and the concussion so great that I was thrown to the ground and had no idea where the damage was.’
She got up, and raced along the duckboards to check her patients. The tent with the pneumonia patient had collapsed and she shouted for help. Eventually she found her patient on the ground at the back of his stretcher. She leant across the stretcher to try to lift him. She thought she had her arm under his leg, but when she lifted it: ‘I found to my horror that it was a loose leg with a boot and a puttee on it.’ It was Private Wilson’s leg. The next day, his torso was found in a tree.
This incident is one of a number of memorable moments in this book. Peter Rees has drawn from the diaries and letters of some of the nurses from Australia and New Zealand who served in the First World War.
‘As nurses in Australia and New Zealand saw it, the issue in 1914 was quite simple. They wanted to be there, with their boys, when they went to war.’
By the end of the First World War, 45 Anzac nurses had died on overseas service, and more than 200 had been decorated. Among the 200 were Alice Ross-King, Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood and Mary-Jane Derrer who each received the Military Cross for their bravery in July 1917 during the German raid.
I was led to this book after watching the ABC TV series ‘The Anzac Girls’ earlier this year. The series, which focusses on the lives of four of the nurses (including Alice Ross-King) reminds us of the importance of the role played by nurses during this conflict. It reminds us, too, of their courage and strength, their dignity and devotion to their duty. This book provides more background and more detail of the lives and work of these women. Of the personal and professional sacrifices they made in support of Australia’s war efforts. These women were also heroes, frequently discriminated against, unrecognised and unacknowledged.
‘For all the returned nurses in this early pot-war period, it was soon clear that they remained invisible from the emerging Anzac legend, which comprised only men. This was a product of the times, when women were still regarded as dependents of men. Authorities in Australia saw the nurses’ role as secondary to that of the soldier.’
The diaries of Alice Ross-King, who died in 1968, are in the Australian War Memorial where Mr Rees had access to them in writing this book. She was a remarkable woman, and I hope that her complete diaries are published one day.
I recommend this book, to those who’ve watched ‘The Anzac Girls’ as well as to those who haven’t. This is another aspect of World War One: the very significant role played by some dedicated and courageous women. Their story deserves more attention.
‘ “Well? Did he do it?” The least interesting question anyone could possibly ask.’
On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson drove his old Holden Com‘ “Well? Did he do it?” The least interesting question anyone could possibly ask.’
On Father’s Day in 2005, Robert Farquharson drove his old Holden Commodore into a dam in Victoria. He escaped, his three young sons Jai (10), Tyler (7) and Bailey (2) drowned. Was it an accident? Or was it deliberate? Farquharson claimed that he had a coughing fit that rendered him unconscious, but he was found guilty of murder.
‘I mean, I mean, what sort of thing’s going to happen to me now?’
Ms Garner’s focus in this book is not on the details of the deaths of the three boys, instead she focusses on the sad, failed relationship between their parents: Robert Farquharson and Cindy Gambino. Ms Garner sat through the various trials held over a number of years, with her knitting and the teenaged daughter of a friend as her most frequent companions. She followed the trial from Farquharson’s initial court appearance in Geelong, to his failed appeal to the High Court in 2013.
Like so many of us who followed the case at the time, Ms Garner struggled with the reality of a father taking the lives of his three sons in what seems to be revenge on his ex-wife.
Farquharson was twice found guilty of the murders of Jai, Tyler and Bailey, but it’s still hard to accept, especially if Farquharson loved his sons as he claimed. The boys died a horrible death by drowning. What loving parent could do that?
Robert Farquharson was angry with his wife for leaving him for another man, and for taking the ‘good’ car. Ten months later, Jai, Tyler and Bailey are drowned. This is a difficult case: we wanted (needed?) to believe that Robert Farquharson was innocent, and that the deaths of the boys was a horrible accident. Instead of duty, love and protection for his sons, Robert Farquharson seems to have been consumed by hatred and revenge of his ex-wife. He now has three life sentences, with a minimum 33 years in prison, ahead of him.
There are no answers here, only possible explanations and unanswered questions.
‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’. That was natural; she was dreaming.’
Elderly and widowed, living on her own in an‘Ruth woke at four in the morning and her blurry brain said, ‘Tiger’. That was natural; she was dreaming.’
Elderly and widowed, living on her own in an isolated house on a beach on the east coast of Australia, Ruth Field senses a tiger prowling around her house. She rings her son Jeffrey in New Zealand to tell him. This may only be a flight of fancy, or is it a harbinger of greater danger ahead?
The next morning, a woman appears at Ruth’s home: ‘My name is Frida Young, and I’m here to look after you.’ Frida has, she says, been sent by the government as a carer to help Ruth with cleaning and cooking. Jeffrey, on the telephone from New Zealand, is wants to see the paperwork but is delighted about what he considers to be a good use of taxpayer funds.
And so Frida, who arrives each morning with a different hairstyle (and sometimes colour) brings Ruth back from an essentially solitary life, providing help and companionship. Frida looks Fijian to Ruth, and this reminds her of her childhood with her missionary parents in Fiji, and of her first love: Richard. She gets in touch with Richard, and invites him to visit for a weekend. When Richard visits, Ruth discovers that Frida has moved into her spare room: the room that her son Phillip once used. Ruth doesn’t remember inviting Frida to move in, but Frida is adamant that she did.
It’s clear that Ruth’s memory is worsening, and while her memory of the past is clear there are gaps in her memory of the immediate past and holes are developing in the present. Is Frida changing, or is it Ruth’s perception of her? Is Frida protecting her, or exploiting her?
‘There’s some sense in not going back. That way, you preserve it.’
Frida is a larger than life character who works hard to earn Ruth’s trust. But there’s a sense that Frida is not what she seems, and Ruth is very vulnerable.
I could not put this book down. Even though I had a fair idea of what might happen, the ending is heartbreaking. Ms McFarlane does a wonderful job of creating two very different characters: the vulnerable Ruth and the seemingly confident Frida, of reminding us how fragile connections can be. It also reminded me that the elderly are particularly vulnerable when they live alone. This is the kind of discomforting novel which you admire for its writing rather than enjoy for its content. And which may dwell in your mind long after you’ve finished it.
It is 1785, and France is on the brink of revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, ‘a disciple of Voltaire’, dream‘Who are you? I am Jean-Baptiste Baratte.’
It is 1785, and France is on the brink of revolution. Jean-Baptiste Baratte, ‘a disciple of Voltaire’, dreams of a bright future. Baratte is an engineer with some experience in mining, and considers himself fortunate when he is awarded a government commission. He travels to the palace of Versailles and through a maze of rooms to find out what is required of him.
‘The palace is a game but he is tired of playing it.’
Eventually, Baratte finds the person he is looking for, and the task for which he has been engaged? Jean-Baptiste Baratte is ordered to exhume the vast and ancient cemetery known as Les Innocents. A subterranean wall separating the necropolis from the city of the living has collapsed, and is creating problems for those who live near the cemetery. Candles are being extinguished, food is being tainted by the smell of putrefaction. And it’s possibly corrupting the young as well, by way of causing ‘moral disturbances’. Cleaning up the mess could be a grand existential battle between dark and light, but the idealistic and pragmatic Baratte can take pride in sweeping away the poisonous influence of the past. Baratte’s first tour of Les Innocents reveals that the cemetery’s church is rotting from the inside out. The parishioners may have moved on, but there are others who live amongst the ruins, and they will be part of the challenge.
‘Over Paris, the stars are fragments of a glass ball flung at the sky.’ It will take Baratte a year to clear away the past and make way for the future. He employs a crew of 30 miners with his old friend Lecoeur to oversee the excavation. None of them realise quite how difficult this excavation will be. There’s a seemingly endless stream of corpses to be managed, and removed under cover of night so as not to disturb the locals.
‘A day’s difficulty can be measured by the amount of strong liquor necessary to endure it.’
The work changes Baratte in a number of ways, he loses his assurance and his sense of self. The cemetery becomes a form of hell, with huge fires burning to clear the air while bones are piled in heaps before they can be moved. Baratte becomes less practical, more susceptible to impulse. Why else would he trade his sensible brown jacket for a suit in a pistachio green silk? It’s madness, and soon he can’t sleep unaided. The year will pass, but who will Jean-Baptiste Baratte be at the end of it?
‘Who are you? Asked the doctor. He is Adam alone in the garden. He is Lazarus rousted out of his tomb, one life separated from another by a slack of darkness.’
While I was reading this book I often felt lost in Les Innocents, contaminated by the dust and the smell. When I finished the book, I admired what Andrew Miller achieved in it. The contrasts between life in Versailles, and life in and around Les Innocents, Baratte’s experiences (good and bad), those people torn between past and future. It’s not an easy read, and nor is it particularly entertaining. But it has its own lingering impact.