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Waratah House by Ann Whitehead
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May 23, 2012

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bookshelves: aussie-author, arc-are, provided-by-publisher

Waratah House is an engaging historical drama spanning the turn of the 20th century in colonial Australia. Set in the southern Highlands of New South Wales, amongst the servants of the household, Whitehead has created a story that explores tragedy repeating itself from one generation to the next and the strength it takes to rewrite one's destiny.
In the first quarter of the novel we are introduced to Marina whose short life is dogged by superstition and misfortune. My sympathies lay squarely with the young girl, orphaned and then horribly victimised by Sarah, her reluctant guardian. Marina is very nearly overwhelmed by Sarah's bitterness though it is tempered somewhat by the love and care of Cookie and the other staff of the House. When an ill-advised relationship results in Marina being banished from Waratah House, she is left to fend for herself on Sydney's streets. Months later Marina, destitute, ill and starving, returns to Waratah House, desperate to find a haven for her newborn daughter.
The story then moves ahead fifteen or so years to introduce Emily, Marina's daughter, who seems to be untroubled by her mother's history. Emily is content spending her days helping her mother, Cookie, in the kitchen and treasures her close friendships with the other children of Waratah House. A good natured child she is oblivious to the rivalries, resentments and passions that seethe below the surface until double tragedy strikes and, as did Marina, Emily finds herself at the mercy of Sarah's burning dislike. It seems that happiness will be as elusive for Emily as it was for her mother.
To be honest I'm not entirely sure how I feel about the change in protagonist which essentially divides the story into two parts. As a whole the story just felt a little unbalanced and I would have preferred the story been Emily's with Marina's explored in some other manner. That being said I found I became invested in the lives of both women, hoping both would find happiness, preferably at the expense of Sarah.
Sarah is perhaps the most complex of Whiteheads characters in Waratah House. As a result of a miserable childhood, Sarah's thoughts and emotions are badly distorted. She is the catalyst for many of the tragedies that occur in the story but unable acknowledge any responsibility, shifting blame without conscience to Marina, and later Emily. She is wholly unlikeable and yet so damaged as to be almost pitiable.

I enjoyed Waratah House particularly for its period setting but also for the strong characterisation and dramatic plot. This is the first book I have read by Ann Whitehead and has piqued my interest in her previous novels, especially Australia Street set in 1940's inner city Sydney.
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