Elspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is...moreElspeth is a midwife who spends months away from home and family, earning money, returning for a few restless months before leaving again. At home is Jorah, her native American husband, and their children: Mary, Amos, Jesse, Caleb, Emma. Home is a small farm in the middle of nowhere, secluded, isolated, handmade. A small wooden house and two barns for the animals. The children all schooled at home, taught Bible stories by Jorah, but largely ignorant of the real world.
Winter, New York State, 1897. Elspeth returns with gifts for the children, but finds instead carnage. Her children dead, shot. Jorah, killed in their bed. The place cold, frozen over, the barn door blocked by drifts of snow. Only Caleb's body she can't find, but then the boy always slept in the hayloft in the barn. When Elspeth, too, is shot, she doesn't have time to think that the killers have returned before she sinks into unconsciousness, and she doesn't see that it is Caleb, hiding in the pantry with his shotgun, who shot her, thinking that the killers had returned.
Caleb, twelve years old, saw the three men with their red scarves. He spent days alongside his dead brothers and sisters, traumatised and terrified. Now his mother is peppered with shot and he does what he can to help her. When she's recovered enough to move, the two set out on a journey over the harsh winter landscape to the town of Watersbridge to find the three men and exact revenge.
The town is an equally harsh place, where Caleb is suddenly thrust into an adult world of violence and depravity, and Elspeth must face up to her failings as a mother - and her sins as a midwife. Now is the time to decide who they each are, boy and mother, who they are loyal to, and whether they can forgive - and earn forgiveness.
I came very close to loving this book. There were a few times when I did love it, but then the feeling slipped away from me and I was left enjoying it a great deal, but not quite in love. For a debut novel, it's a fine achievement, bold and strong and brave, and also subtle and humane. I wasn't quite enamoured of the prose, which often felt like a hand pressed against my chest, exerting slight pressure to make me keep my distance. As much as I wanted to really connect with the characters and immerse myself in their story, that invisible pressure ensured an element of detachment that I didn't want.
Granted, the sensation did fit in very nicely with the story, the tone and the atmosphere. This is a cold story. Look at the cover; now feel that in your bones. Scott does an excellent job of capturing that winter chill, the ice and snow and freezing winds, and lets it permeate the characters, their emotions, their decisions. This is not a story that could have taken place in warmer, sunnier months. (Or rather, it would have been a completely different, less captivating story.) Winter itself becomes a third wheel to Elspeth and Caleb's journey, a constant presence - and a constant threat.
The dangers that the weather pose, that unpredictable natural element, compounds the dangers in Watersbridge. Elspeth, disguised as a man, gets a job on the river, cutting and hauling large blocks of ice which are then stacked in a tower in the icehouse. It's a very dangerous job, as she witnesses. Caleb finds himself at the disreputable Elm Inn, a brothel, bar and gaming hell, and ends up with a job sweeping the floors and washing sheets - expecting at any moment for the three killers to walk in, as it's their kind of place. Whenever a fight breaks out and there are gunshots, or Ethan the doorman forcibly ejects a man from a woman's room, they use the phrase, "Better get the doctor." Code for: dump the body in the snow outside, it'll be taken care of.
The Elm Inn is run by London White, a fastidious man who relates to young Caleb how he took what he wanted through murder and theft. A dangerous, possessive man who'd like to raise Caleb in his world. But it is at the Elm Inn that Caleb encounters Martin Shane, who seems shocked to see Caleb - as if he knows him, or recognises him.
It is clear from early on that there is something odd about Elspeth's children. Something that doesn't add up. Elspeth herself isn't the motherly figure you expect her to be when you start reading. She's only maternal up to a point, as if her motherly instincts have a use-by date. There's little depth of connection between her and Caleb, and neither of them is at all sure that the other won't just leave them. As much as this story is a coming-of-age story for Caleb, it's even more of one for Elspeth.
Thematically, and regardless of the weather or location, this is a "Wild West" story. A classic Western, in the American sense. Murder, revenge, a lawless town run by a few powerful men, brawls and violence and homophobia abound. Just remove the typical dry desert-like setting, and replace it with an equally cruel, ice-cold one. The ending fits in nicely with this, and overall it's a delight - a fascinating delight - to read a Western so perfectly removed from it's namesake, the American West, and instead woven so neatly into the wild, cold winter of the north-east. It makes it less your typical "historical fiction" novel and more of a wild-card. It doesn't follow the usual historical fiction trajectory: it's all Western. This sense seeps into you fairly quickly, and really adds to the tension of reading about a vulnerable woman and a small boy on such a perilous mission in this harsh man's world.
Like I said, there was much to love here. As harsh and uncompromising as the landscape, yet like the land, there are slim veins of more positive elements visible: love, forgiveness, family, the bond between mother and child, redemption, hope. The Western tropes and the winter cold add to the disconnect from the main characters - I couldn't always understand Elspeth or her motivations, because you never get a chance to - but as a whole, the story is rather brilliant.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Playing St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania f...morePlaying St Barbara takes us right into the struggles, desires and secrets of the Sweeney family in a harsh landscape: the coal mines of Pennsylvania from 1929 to 1941. Finbar Sweeney is an Irish coal miner with a foul tongue, a talent for baseball and a mean streak that manifests into physical violence against his wife, Clare, and sometimes even his daughters. Norah, Deidre and Katie. Clare has buried three infant sons already and lives in dread of bearing a healthy, thriving boy; or rather, she lives in dread of having a son who will one day turn into a man just like his father. She buries her German heritage, even though she's more American than Fin is, having been born there, but secretly teaches her daughters the language.
Clare wants nothing so much as to see her girls go on to a better place than the Hive, the dirty, impoverished cottages in the coal mining town, kept separate from their betters, the "Upperhillers", the wives and families of the men who run and supervise the mines. But breaking out of the cycle of poverty is one thing; breaking away from the domineering presence of their father is something else altogether. While Clare wants the best for her daughters, they in turn want to protect their mother and see her happy and free, for perhaps the first time in her life. But can Clare break the habits that have been beaten into her, and forge her own way?
Szczepanski brings life on the edge of a dangerous and filthy coal mine to life in Playing St Barbara, a tense, often harrowing account of life - for women especially - in a harsh and unforgiving world. It's a world that Szczepanski has brought vividly to life through her descriptions and characters. I felt the coal dust in my pores and the stifling repression of poverty, classism, racism and sexism. The fear and uncertainty, but also the love and grieving, the perseverance and stoicism and quiet burning strength of these women.
Each of them - Deidre first, then Katie and lastly Norah, when she's twenty-nine - play the lead role of St. Barbara in the annual St Barbara festivities play. Saint Barbara was a young woman living centuries ago in Turkey, whose father, Dioscorus, was a "wealthy pagan" and "very protective of his daughter. He built her a tall tower, so the world's evils would not harm her." While he was away travelling, a priest converted Barbara to Christianity and she "ordered the builders to add a third window to her bathhouse, symbolizing the Holy Trinity." Her father, returning, was furious, and when she refused to recant her new religion before the provincial ruler, she was sentenced to death by beheading. Her father requested "permission to carry out the execution himself." But after he beheaded her in the forest, an angel appeared, lifting her body and taking it away.
Barbara is honored as the patron saint of miners because she experienced an untimely end and was buried by an angel deep inside the earth. It is customary to place a picture or statue of St Barbara, holding a sword and standing beside a tower, at the entrance to a mine. Pit workers who escape after explosions and roof falls often tell stories of a bright light leading them to safety. [from Katie's prize-winning essay]
Against the menacing backdrop of terrorising Ku Klux Klan, who burn crosses and destroy people's vegetable gardens at the merest hint of union organising (which Fin is always at the forefront of), the symbolism of these girls, sacrificed for their father's narrow, iron view of the world and their place in it, carries a stale taste of fear through the entire novel. It's no sure thing, that any of them will get a happy ending, and that makes it all the more nail-biting.
All the girls and women are different. Deidre is the fiery one, the one who, at seventeen, wins the role of playing St Barbara even though she's from The Hive, and a Sweeney to boot. The play is being organised and directed by a woman they call The Queen - Beatrice Finch, the wife of the mine superintendent. But then she meets Billy McKenna, a young, red-haired cossack (a policeman), who is, in Fin's eyes, enemy number 1. She gets a belting from her father just for looking at him in church, but she's not easily repressed, and she's the first of the three girls to seek her own path, with the help of her mother and her mother's cousin Trudy, a single woman living in Pittsburgh where she works in the Heinz test kitchen and provides a willing escape route - and much-needed funds to get there.
Katie is the youngest sister and the scholarly, smart one who was moved up in school. She wants to be a teacher, and is contemplating going to a convent to become one. It costs two hundred dollars, which they don't have, and a friend who went but left after just a few months tells her how horrible it is. While cousin Trudy and her church's congregation work to raise the money for her admission, Katie lets herself be seduced by her handsome boyfriend, Jack. But when Jack gets caught up in Fin's new union plans, things go from bad to worse and Katie, like Deidre, needs an escape from The Hive and Uniontown.
Katie studied the garish face in the mirror. The girl beneath the pancake was no longer the Katie who nearly fainted with delight when the cast list was posted. Who calmly delivered the high school valedictory speech. Who sat for an hour in Fr. Kovacs' tiny parlor, patiently answering questions about her vocation. Without warning, Tina had vanished, taking that Katie with her.
Who, then, was this painted-up person left behind? This brazen stranger eager to shed her clothes in a coke oven? The pageant's audience surely would see through the pancake and satin. How could a girl of questionable virtue and dubious vocation convincingly play a saint? [p.175]
Norah, the eldest, was "going steady" with Paul, a lovely young man with a gift for mechanics. But the years kept passing and still they never married, until finally she sent him on his way. Clare is upset and believes Norah won't marry because she feels protective of her mother, and needs to look out for her and help her around the house. She believes that if she tells Norah the secret of her dead baby brothers and the sin she committed to ensure she'd have no more babies, Norah will finally leave her. But nothing is that simple, and it takes more than the airing of old grief to dislocate Norah from her childhood home. Instead, she finds herself a new job and a new title: a "career girl", with a taste for fine clothes and accessories. When there's a collapse in the coal mine and it looks, for a moment, like Fin hasn't survived, everything shifts for Clare and Norah, and in a way, they each wake up to the sad truths of their lives and what they've endured, and what they're wasting.
Clare is the one who carries the novel, and the common thread through all the stories. She is the broken woman, a shadow of who she might have been had circumstances been different. But I didn't find her pitiable. She carries with her a quiet, stoic dignity that has, perhaps, been forged in the fire of Fin's abuse. And it's easy to sympathise - and empathise - with her feelings towards her dead sons, babies that she loved and yet feared - and feared for. She is the character you most want to rescue, who frustrates with her inability to change the course of her life. If you want to understand why women put up with domestic abuse, Clare will give great insight. Szczepanski handles it with tenderness and subtlety; the reasons come through without any heavy-handed telling, and that makes it all the more heart-breaking.
I never did quite understand the Ku Klux Klan - I don't know much about them except the general, cross burning and the lynching of black people, for example. I've never read much about them or seen a documentary about them, and Playing St Barbara didn't fill in any gaps in my knowledge on that front. The many attempts to form miners' unions, the strikes and the backdrop of war (the Depression is skipped over between the Katie and Norah stories) adds context and is relevant to the story, but I didn't come away from it with a better understanding. This doesn't really detract from the story, overall, but I do like to learn as I read.
It is a bit slow to get going, and there's a long cast of characters to keep track of (though the author has helpfully provided a list on her website, including nicknames, which I recommend you print and keep handy!), but it rewards perseverance. This is a historical period and setting that you don't read about all that much, and Szczepanski has done an admirable job of bringing it to life in rich detail and investing it with the full range of human experience and emotion. You can easily relate to these people, despite never having experienced what they have: empathy comes easily.
There are beautiful, positive and even happy moments, to balance the sad in this book. The writing and pacing is strong and steady, and it carries the weight of the period. I could easily picture it as a TV series, especially with all the drama (I think because there have been series that are equally dramatic and heavy, from a similar period - mostly British of course). I hated the format of the book, though - this is one of my peculiarities, in that the typeface (font), line spacing, ink and all the rest of the appearance on the pages themselves, have a huge impact on how I read a story, how I connect with it and what I get from it. If this had been printed by Harper, for example, it would have been a more beautiful, poignant reading experience, because they know how to package a book. The cover is great, but the story deserves better treatment, nicer paper, a finer font, to reflect the inner beauty of the Sweeney women in their blackened, grimy world.
My thanks to the author for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours.(less)
Victoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and...moreVictoria, 1932. On her sixteenth birthday, Bluebell "Blue" Laurence looks in the mirror of her bedroom in her aunt's rented house in Willow Creek, and sees a monster. The scars from the fire cover her neck, and her red hair is falling out. She can barely walk, reduced to a clumsy shuffle because of scar tissue joining her thighs together. Her aunts, Daisy and Lilac, whisked her away not long after the fire to this house in the country, where they feed her detestable liver custard and tapioca. Her only company is the young Chinese servant girl, Mah, who rescued her from the fire at her parents' house.
Orphaned after her parents and baby brother, Willy, die when their ship sinks en route back from South Africa, Blue is kept in ignorance of the state of her family's affairs. Her father was the manager for her grandfather's shoe factory, Laurence Shoes, and she assumes their house burned down in the fire, but no one actually talks to her, not even her Uncle Herbert, who sends her chocolates and some money for her birthday.
With the ten pounds from her uncle, Blue sneaks out at night to see the circus that just arrived in town. The Magnifico Family Circus is a one-night-only event, and Blue enjoys seeing through the trickery in the sideshow tents and trying to guess how things were done. But it's in the Big Top that she really enjoys herself, watching the acrobatic displays and the elephant, called the Queen of Sheba. Led by the indomitable and very talented Madame - of no known name or age - the Magnifico Family Circus is a small group of skilled performers who take on several roles to make the circus feel bigger and more glamorous. Aside from Madame, the fortune-teller, there's Mrs Olsen, her daughter Gertrude and her young son Ginger, who are trapeze artists, and handsome young Fred who plays the bearded lady and many other roles. And there's the middle-aged brothers, Ebenezer and Ephraim, who play the Ring Master and the clown, respectively, among other things, and manage the heavy work.
Her aunts arrive to take her home during the intermission, and lock her in her bedroom for the rest of the night. It is when the house is quiet and everyone asleep - everyone but Blue, who tries not to panic at the thought of being trapped in the room - that there's a tap at her window. The circus has come to break her free, rescue her and hide her in plain sight. Madame, in her inscrutable way, has knowledge that Blue is being poisoned with arsenic - the hair loss is a sure sign. She wagers Blue has barely weeks left to live, and even though Blue resists the idea that her aunts could be trying to kill her, it starts to make a strange sort of sense. Especially when, from the very next day, she stops vomiting and starts feeling better.
It is a long road to full recovery for Blue, though, and in the meantime she's a runaway with the police looking for her. The circus is skilled at hiding people in plain sight, though, and soon Blue is masquerading as a boy when she's not performing as a harem dancer or a mermaid called Belle. Over the next few years Blue finds a new home in the circus, and a new family among the eclectic Magnifico family. Her only guiding thought is to wait till she's of age and can be financially and legally independent; until then, she plans to stay with the circus.
But Blue has no control over the way of the world, or the effect the Depression will indirectly have on the circus and the fate of her new family. It is at the small rural town of Gibber's Creek in 1935 that their luck runs out and Blue's carefree days of performing in a circus come to an end. It is there they meet Miss Matilda, owner of Drinkwater Station, and her husband who runs the nearby wireless factory. It is at Drinkwater that the circus's real secrets come to light and Blue realises just how clever they all are at multiple duplicity. And it is at Drinkwater that a murder and a murderer catches up with the circus.
While The Road to Gundagai is the third book in the Matilda Saga, it - and all the others (there are more to come too) - can each be read as a stand-alone book. The first book, A Waltz for Matilda, introduces readers to Miss Matilda as a child in 1894 and ends in 1915; the second, The Girl From Snowy River, is about Flinty McAlpine in 1919 till 1926; her brothers appear in Gundagai, as does Matilda from the first book. The next book will be set in 1942, during World War II, and the fifth in 1969.
But this is Blue's story, and I have to say right here, right now, that it's an excellent, wonderful, exciting, perfectly-written story that's easily one of the best teen novels I've ever read, and one of the best books I've ever read, too. I can't recommend this book highly enough, I am utterly in love with it and I know I would have loved it as a teenager as well.
Jackie French was previously known to me as a picture book author - her Diary of a Wombat is a modern-day Australian classic. But I had no idea until recently that she also wrote fiction, primarily for Young Adults and older children. I sought out her books one day and found a whole section in Petrarch's in Launceston, a bit tucked away sadly but completely devoted to Jackie French novels. They didn't have A Waltz for Matilda or The Girl From Snowy River, but I had already planned on reading this and was thrilled to find they had a few copies. I mean, who doesn't love circus stories? Stories about orphan girls being poisoned by wicked aunts? Stories about elephants who love to steal jewellery and have their own teddy bear? Stories about adventure and young love, mystery and treachery and family secrets? The Road to Gundagai has it all, and what's even better is that the writing is so ... flawless.
It's extremely rare for me - in my jaded, too-often-cynical 30s - to find a book, especially a YA novel, that doesn't annoy me in some small way, or feel a bit simplistic or unpolished or with weak world-building or characterisation or plotting. There's almost always something that stops me from really, truly loving a YA novel. One of the reasons why French's writing reads with such confidence and vitality and realism, is that she's practiced and experienced enough to know her own writing style and be comfortable in it: there's no pretensions here, no awkward turns-of-phrase in an attempt to be original, and no present tense! French is skilled at bringing her characters to life with just the right amount of detail, and the pacing is swift and sure so that you never get bored nor feel rushed. Like many of the characters, the story itself is full of charisma. It's completely absorbing and engaging, and just beautiful to read.
The story is also rich in period details, and setting. There is a handy appendix at the back for younger readers that gives concise and interesting explanations and insight into many of the things in the book, but if you already have the context and a general understanding of the Depression you can really revel in the fine details of life in a circus in Australia during the 1930s. Throughout the story, there's the running theme of what a circus - or any kind of theatrical performance - can bring people living in poverty, who spend what they can for a bit of glitter, a gasp and a laugh.
'And tomorrow, Gertrude will ride Sheba with Belle through the shanties before Ebenezer takes her down to the sea for her swim.' Gertrude's face appeared at the caravan door. She gave them all a swift angry look. 'I practise in the mornings.' 'One practice cut short will do no harm. You will be Gloria and Belle will be a dancer.' Madame shook her head. 'The mermaid would please them more, but a mermaid on an elephant is not believable. Best they keep the image from tonight. But wear the jewels. They deserve another sight of jewels. The children will tell their children.' Madame stared into the darkness. Her voice was soft. 'When they talk about these years they will not say, "We shivered in the wind with sacking walls, we ate stale bread and drank buttermilk," but, "One night I saw a fairy fly across a tent. I saw a mermaid swim, and wave her tail at me."' [p.158]
Balancing the dark tones is light and laughter, warmth and friendship. Blue finds love, too, and so does the reader: if you don't fall in love with Sheba the elephant, I shall be very much surprised. It should come as no surprise, of course, that French can write an elephant character so damn well.
Enriched with themes of economics and politics, class divides and gender imbalance, the story of Blue growing, maturing and really coming into her own is an absolute delight. She becomes a confident young woman with skills only the circus could have taught her - along with the nurturing of her circus family. There are moments of sadness and tears, and moments of bravery and resilience. Through it all, Blue is a strong heroine and protagonist you will come to love, along with all the other characters, so diverse and full of surprises. If I haven't won you over yet and made you eager to pick up this wonderful, wonderful book and read it today, then that's a lack in me and not in Jackie French's skill as a storyteller. For myself, I plan to read her entire backlist of novels and discover more gems.(less)
Sarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and,...moreSarah Gordon grew up a farm girl. Life on Wangallon Homestead, her family's sheep and cattle station in north-west NSW, is one of hard work, dust and, sometimes, death, but growing up in the 80s, Sarah knows it's home and doesn't think of the future much. Her older brother Cameron will inherit, according to the family patriarch, her grandfather Angus Gordon. Angus has inherited his own father's determination and arrogance, and doesn't see his own son, Sarah's father Ronald, a worthy successor. But Angus is a meddler, and when he hires Anthony - first as a jackaroo and later as station manager - he already plans for him and Sarah to marry, to keep it all in the family.
And then tragedy strikes: young Cameron is killed while riding his horse, and Sarah learns he was only her half-brother. Her mother, Sue, had an affair with a wool grader. It doesn't change her love for Cameron, but her mother seems to hate her and she feels like even her grandfather considers her second-best and not worthy of Wangallon. Angus is determined to pass the station down to a Gordon, and her brother wasn't even a real Gordon! Having finished high school, Sarah leaves Wangallon for life in Sydney as a photographer, where she meets Jeremy, a yuppy accountant who offers her a very different way of life.
But her grandfather calls her back to the station time and again, even after her parents pack up and move to the Gold Coast. It's just Angus and Anthony on Wangallon now, and Angus lays out his plans for Sarah: she can inherit Wangallon, but she has to move back to the land and marry Anthony. His heavy-handed, dictatorial approach only alienates her further, and Sarah's convinced Anthony knows all about it and doesn't trust her attraction to him, or his to her. She doesn't know her own heart, and baulks at the idea of moving back to Wangallon if only because her grandfather demands it. It will take more than a directive from Angus to clear up the doubt and anguish in Sarah's heart.
Alongside Sarah's story, which takes place between the years 1982 and 1987, is the story of Wangallon Homestead itself, which is the story of her great-grandfather, Hamish Gordon. Having left Scotland in anger with his younger brother Charlie following in 1854, he ends up in the gold fields of Victoria, struggling to strike it rich. After his brother dies, Hamish embarks on a new plan: to steal a lot of sheep (a common enough occurrence), establish his own farm and become a big landowner. His plan includes marrying Rose, a young woman in the nearby small town in New South Wales, but their marriage is a cold, unfriendly one and they never see eye-to-eye. It is a hard life, in rural Australia in the mid-1800s, and it takes its toll on Rose, while Hamish has his eye on a girl he saw once in Sydney.
It is Rose's story as much as it is Hamish's and Sarah's, a story about the deep connections forged between individuals and the unique Australian land, shaped by humans but never conquered. It is a story about love and loyalty, about belonging, identity, and following the heart.
It is partly my own fault that I struggled with this novel, and partly the novel's fault for being a bit sluggish. I had just arrived back in Australia after nearly eight years overseas, and was eager to try a Rural Romance. I'd seen plenty of them reviewed on other blogs, and they have very distinctive covers - covers just like this one. And when I read the blurb, I read it through a "rural romance" lens, and ended up misinterpreting it. This is a case of a book misrepresenting itself, and it all comes down to the cover. Covers not only serve to catch the eye; they also give browsers a quick, instant genre label. Every genre has its own style, and while the styles change over the decades, and there's room for movement within a style, they still scream "ROMANCE!" or "FANTASY!" or "YA!" or "MYSTERY-THRILLER!" and so on. Even literary, or general fiction, books abide by this, and you'll have noticed that books that publishers think will appeal more to women readers have covers that they think will appeal more to women (the downside being that men will never pick up the book). So this book has a Rural Romance cover, and that's what I thought I was getting: a romance, set in rural Australia.
The setting is correct, but this isn't a romance. It's fiction, a blend of contemporary and historical. It's also long - too long - and rather slow. While Alexander successfully conjures up the setting, especially Australia in the 1860s, the 1980s was too often a messy, vague picture in my head. I found the writing to be a bit weak at times, especially in Sarah's chapters. The story was much stronger in the 1860s setting, for some reason. I was much more invested in Hamish and Rose's story than I was in Sarah's. Hamish was a bit of a scary character, and I totally felt for Rose, who was separated from her daughter Elizabeth and who struggled with loneliness and depression on Wangallon Homestead. Hers is a tragic story, but while Hamish's side of the story helped explain Angus, the son he had when he was rather old, Rose's story doesn't really add anything to Sarah's.
I never came to like Sarah very much. In fact, I never really understood her. She was one of those frustratingly stubborn heroines who would get the bit between the teeth and that was it. There was no chemistry between her and Jeremy, and none between her and Anthony. Anthony was one of the most likeable characters in the whole story, if perhaps the only likeable character. But he's not very well developed, there isn't much to his character aside from being a good station manager.
There's quite a lot going on in this story, which concentrates around family dynamics, the mistakes of the past and lost love. Sue, Sarah's grumpy mother, has a fair bit in common with Rose, but aside from the characters feeling reasonably realistic and true to life, I never felt particularly empathetic with any of them. I even had trouble remembering some of their names - and there aren't many characters to remember. Sarah's trip to Scotland towards the end of the novel was a bit messy and slipped into cliché-land, and didn't add much to Sarah's character at all. I found her hollow and confusing. I never understood what her problem was, really, because she was never able to reflect on it, articulate it or show it. It was all rather frustrating.
Where the story is strongest is, as I mentioned, in the chapters set in the 1800s, Rose and Hamish's story. It's quite dark at times, and there's a palpable sense of tension and even a brooding kind of threat in the air. Hamish is rather merciless and ruthless and doesn't stop at having people killed to serve his own ends. The period settling is recreated convincingly and realistically. I found it a bit implausible that Angus would be Hamish's son, not because Hamish would be incapable of having a kid in, what, 1901? when he was in his 70s perhaps? But because his wife would have been too old, especially in those days. The dates and ages didn't quite add up, a niggling detail that bothered me throughout. Maybe, instead of the 1980s, Sarah should have been growing up a couple of decades earlier, and Angus born earlier.
While the history of Wangallon and Hamish's story added a bit of depth to Sarah's story, Sarah's story added nothing to Hamish and Rose's story. I found Sarah's story to be slow, long-winded, and rather dull. She's a self-indulgent sort of character, and that's a big put-off for me. For a debut novel, The Bark Cutters is rather ambitious and only half-successful; it doesn't make me inclined to read the next book in the Gordon family saga, A Changing Land - the story of Wangallon is quite interesting, but I've had enough of Sarah. (less)
This finely-researched novel takes place between 1935 and 1944 in Toronto, France and London. Edward Jamieson was in Signals in World War I and fought...moreThis finely-researched novel takes place between 1935 and 1944 in Toronto, France and London. Edward Jamieson was in Signals in World War I and fought at Vimy Ridge; since the war he's suffered from post-traumatic shock disorder - or Shell Shock as they used to call it. He's a quiet, fairly reserved man who keeps things locked inside, though with the help of a particular doctor recommended to him by his friend from the war, Eric, the nightmares have mostly ended. After returning to Toronto he met and married Ann and they had two children, Emily and Alex, born close together. Edward works at the phone company and Ann runs the house and raises the children. They're happy and content.
All that changes when Edward receives an invitation to a memorial ceremony for the battle at Vimy Ridge, France. The invitation not only brings back vivid memories that torment him daily, it also resurrects a past lost love and the equally vivid memories of the passionate affair he had with a Frenchwoman, Helene. He hasn't seen her in years and she never answered his letters, but his decision to go to the ceremony despite the pain of his recollections is partly influenced by his secret desire to see her once again.
Helene is at the ceremony, and in a flash Edward is taken back in time to the happy, passion-filled times spent with her. Even though both are now married and have children, they embark on a week-long affair that, when she learns of it, breaks Ann and nearly destroys her marriage.
There are two parallel sides to this story: war, and marriage. Or pain and love. It's about the people who fight, and the people who are left behind. Both groups are scarred and have much to recover from. The details Tod includes in Edward's flashbacks to WWI are realistic and gruesome, and in the matter-of-fact style - not detached but stripped of emotion - these scenes become even more tragic and awful.
Despite the cold, Edward sweated in his greatcoat. Mud oozed with each step, slowing his pace. His foot slipped. He grabbed at a section of chicken wire attached to the retaining wall to steady himself. A few yards ahead, a pool of water lay in front of a tunnel entrance. While slogging through the water, an explosion ripped the sky, spraying earth and shrapnel. Large clods of dirt stuck to his helmet.
Just inside the tunnel the ground wobbled beneath his feet. Struggling to keep his balance, he realized he was standing on two dead soldiers. He shuddered but kept going, barely able to see in the tunnel's gloom. Panting, he slowed his pace to avoid falling; not one second could be wasted. Outside, the bursting curtain of steel continued its deadly assault.
Contrasted to scenes like the one above are those that are filled with passion and heartache and the weight of a different kind of responsibility: that toward your loved ones, your marriage, your future. Both Edward and Ann must face this kind of responsibility, and make decisions around the kind of future they want to have. The marriage is strained, almost breaks, not once but twice. The second time it is Ann herself who, feeling isolated, lonely, forgotten and unloved by her husband when, during WWII, he becomes involved in Canadian espionage and secrets once again divide them, strays from the commitments she made to Edward and her children. Tod handles the grey areas nicely, and sympathetically explores these flaws in human nature - flaws that, ultimately, speak to our very human need to be loved and to feel alive.
Everything he had been brought up to believe would condemn him for such behaviour, but being with Helene had felt like finding an oasis when he was about to collapse from thirst. Now, looking back, his actions felt like those of a stranger. He felt like his life had unravelled, his careful plans and hard work and dedication lost in a moment of memory.
The years had taught her that marriage grew quiet over time, leaving a hum of comfort and familiarity mixed with bouts of frustration and disinterest. Edward's secrets and disappearances had fostered anger. Anger had obscured her path. With war grinding on and on, she had stopped believing in the sacredness of their lifelong commitment and allowed her moral code to fail. Ann knew she had to stop blaming her husband. One thing was clear: Edward needed her. Perhaps more than she needed him.
Unravelled is solidly written with an eye to historical accuracy and exploring the ups and downs of marriage, but I also found the writing to be a bit pedestrian. At times, in describing simple actions like clearing the table or moving around a room, it was a bit wordy. As in, some actions don't need to be described because they're inherent in the larger action, such as picking something up to move it. Really, though, my main struggle with this was my failure to connect properly, emotionally, with the characters. Tod's background in historical research seems to overshadow her writing in general: characters and their development come across too impersonally, with their feelings and thoughts told to me rather than shown.
I also struggled a bit with the war scenes, not the gory battle scenes but the behind-the-scenes planning and discussion etc. These scenes were a bit stale for me and simply described things; at best they were relevant in how showing how Edward's work was affecting him and thus his marriage, but at worst they seemed lacking in relevance to the overall story. I'm sure they could have been worked in better; it just seemed like I was reading two different stories: one about a couple and their marriage, which was quite interesting; the other about World War I and World War II and Canada's involvement in its successes and failures. I'm quite sure other readers would have felt the two meshed together well, but perhaps because I wasn't able to fully connect with the main characters - they were never quite fleshed out enough for me - I failed to connect with the war scenes.
As far as the historical side is concerned, it would probably help to have a bit of background in it. I found it easy to follow the developments of WWII, at least, because I had studied Canada's involvement in that war in order to teach it to grade 8 students a few years ago. I did find that at least half the time, Tod wasn't quite able to integrate these details into the narrative, choosing instead to simple tell us some basic facts about what was happening. It felt a bit simplistic at times, and reinforced my confusion about the main focus of the novel.
There was plenty to like and enjoy in Unravelled, but sadly the novel - in its parts and as a whole - just didn't quite work for me. I was most engrossed in scenes with Ann and Edward trying to work out their marriage, but even then I didn't feel like it went much farther than the surface of things, no doubt because so much is told to me rather than shown. That made it a disappointing read, overall, despite its merits.