Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship's Reviews > The Paperbark Shoe

The Paperbark Shoe by Goldie Goldbloom
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I picked up this book because 1) it's historical fiction, which I like, set in rural western Australia, which isn't a setting I see very much of and 2) the narrator has albinism, which is just cool. While it's a decent book, it didn't quite come together for me. Maybe I'm just not the right reader for this one; it will probably appeal more to fans of contemporary lit than historical fiction. And while there's plenty of Literature-with-a-capital-L that I think is fantastic, books like this seem to be hit or miss.

As others have related, this book revolves around Gin, a pianist trapped in an emotionally unfulfilling marriage with the farmer Toad; World War II is on and due to Australia's labor shortage, Italian POW's are sent out to work on the farms. The result is a complicated love quadrilateral (pentagon?) where the only thing that's really clear is that no one's emotional needs are being met.

The characters are complex and often opaque, and Gin has a strong voice. Goldbloom gives her believable flaws while creating a sympathetic character; Gin has had a hard life and so it's easy to feel for her, even while recognizing that she's making bad decisions and being a poor mother. I especially like the way readers can recognize what's really going on even where Gin is deluding herself. And her past, as it's slowly revealed, is well-handled. Several of the other characters remain enigmas to the end, leaving the reader with something to think about; it's nice that the author doesn't insist on one way of viewing any of the characters.

The plot did drag a bit for me; it has a leisurely pace until close to the end, where it picks up quite a bit, but sags in the middle. The end is appropriately tragic, but leaves at least a little bit of hope, and the story certainly didn't go where I expected, which is refreshing. The writing style is good if a bit overwritten in places. There's a strong sense of place, with great descriptions of the landscape and lifestyle of the rural farmers, although at times the author seems most interested in the more disgusting details of everyday life. While I like fiction to be somewhat "gritty," grounded in sensory detail and unafraid of ugliness, this book wallows in it a bit much, with its descriptions of the children sweeping cow urine into the gutter with their bare feet, or Toad picking diseased skin off his fungus-infested feet and eating it. Beside those distasteful details, Goldbloom's opting for a fade-to-black for the childbirth scene and the did-they-or-didn't-they love scene is incongruous.

What bothered me the most about this book, though, was the lack of clarity; sometimes it's hard to tell what's going on. (This style of writing might appeal more to those who like stream-of-consciousness works, as Gin's narration is anything but straightforward.) Gin jumps back and forth between the past and present tense, and a few short scenes, bizarrely, jump out of Gin's first-person perspective altogether. (It's startling in a book that uses the imprisonment motif so heavily for the author to choose not to confine herself completely to the narrator's point-of-view, especially since the deviations didn't appear strictly necessary.) And finally, there are a few scenes that just don't make much sense. For instance, early on it's established that the farm's kitchen is not well-stocked; they're on rations and Toad is stingy with the money (Gin's dresses are sewn from old gray sacks). Additionally, the Australians are suspicious of Italian food. Then a truckload of soldiers shows up unexpectedly and one of the Italians cooks them a huge meal of spaghetti, garlic bread, and so on. Wait a minute: where did all those ingredients come from?

In some ways, this book clearly succeeds. It does a good job with the characters and handles the theme of confinement very well. But I didn't enjoy it the way I expected to and am not sure I would recommend it to others.
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