Jennifer (JC-S)'s Reviews > Wild Island

Wild Island by Jennifer Livett
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really liked it
bookshelves: australian-womens-writers-challenge

‘Reader, she did not marry him.
Or rather, when at last she did, it was not so straightforward as she implies in her memoirs.’

This novel is set in the nineteenth century, in Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania). The narrative is split into two, alternating between Charles O’Hara Booth (the commandant of the penal settlement at Port Arthur during the 1830s) and Harriet Adair, who has replaced Grace Poole as the companion and nursemaid to Bertha Mason. Yes, Gentle Reader, Jane Eyre makes an appearance within these pages. And she does marry Edward Rochester – eventually – but not quite the way we readers of ‘Jane Eyre’ have come to believe.

It’s an interesting juxtaposition: a mystery concerning Edward Rochester, Jane Eyre and Bertha Mason woven around historical characters in Van Diemen’s Land. Those sections involving Harriet Adair provide a sequel to Jane Eyre, while the sections involving Charles O’Hara Booth introduce us to a number of historical figures including Lieutenant-Governor George Arthur, John and Elizabeth Gould, Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin.

Readers of Jane Eyre will need to assume that Bertha Mason survived the fire at Thornfield Hall, and that there are questions about her earlier life which can only be explored by travelling to Van Diemen’s Land. And once in Van Diemen’s Land, the distinction between the historical and fictional characters blur as Harriet Adair finds her way in Van Demonian society. There are plenty of twists and turns as Harriet Adair tries to find out more about the mystery of Bertha Mason’s past.

For me personally, the search for the truth about Bertha Mason’s past (no spoilers here) was less important. While it’s the reason why Harriet Adair is in Van Diemen’s Land and provides the impetus for much of her action, this part of the story was very much secondary for me. What I loved was the depiction of the historical characters, the description of society, the politics and machinations. Harriet Adair fits right into this world, which is a tribute to Ms Livett’s writing skill.

‘I thought of the rules men had made for us women to live by, and how sometimes we must ignore these and live by our own rules.’

Harriet Adair does as a fictional character largely live by her own rules. But Charles O’Hara Booth is constrained by both society and history. Running the penal settlement at Port Arthur is difficult (there’s nothing new about politics in prisons) and while he falls in love and wants to marry, he worries about whether he can afford to. Sir John and Lady Jane Franklin have their own trials and tribulations. Life in Van Diemen’s Land was never easy, especially for those who look to Britain as home.

If you enjoy historical fiction set in colonial Tasmania, I recommend this novel. The Jane Eyre connection mostly worked for me although it wasn’t central to my enjoyment of the novel. This is Ms Livett’s debut novel, and I’d certainly be interested in reading any other novels she might write.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith
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Reading Progress

October 1, 2016 – Started Reading
October 1, 2016 – Shelved
October 5, 2016 – Finished Reading
October 8, 2016 – Shelved as: australian-womens-writers-challenge

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