Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This is a hugely satisfying book that deals with real people in diverse cultures with fairness and honesty. It is the first book to be written by Nicole Sinclair and the first novel published by Margaret River Press.
It is surprising that the book is as successful as it is. It asks its readers to consider a concept, the concept of home. What has to be done to make a dwelling place into a home? And what about those who dwell in the home? What might we owe to them? Abstract questions, daring questions, but well answered in this sweeping and inspiring novel.
The book features a woman in her early thirties whose past is locked into years of childhood on a wheat belt in West Australia. When the book opens Beth, our protagonist, is running to escape her past. She is heading to an island in Papua New Guinea. The book divides into two overlapping segments. Beth’s story is one; the other is a tale of passion and love on the part of Beth’s parents many years before. There is much joy on the island but brutality and spite as well. Similarly, Beth’s parents face bitter tragedy and the lives of all around them are affected.
The book switches seamlessly between the situations that define the major characters. An example will clarify what is a very significant point about the structure of this book. On page 201 we read that, “It’s not that she isn’t curious…” and we realise that we are with Beth on an island in Papua New Guinea waters in the present. This chapter has much to say about a character called Pirate. Then on page 205 we read, “1976. A couple of weeks after the fire, Clem comes around the corner of the chook shed…” It’s a different set of characters, a different time, and a different protagonist. Two pages later on page 207, “Pirate sees Beth before she sees him…” Another switch.
Readers have no difficulty jockeying from one part of the story to a new scenario. They are conscious of the fact that there is an overarching plan that keeps all segments on track. The characters that populate each segment are soon recognised and there is no misunderstanding of what is happening. Characterisation is one of the major strengths of the book. If we were to track Beth, for example, we would witness a caustic individual who is told she should get away and give herself the opportunity to adjust to her changed circumstances. Caustic at first and unhappy about joining Val on the island, Beth begins to change early, takes up a skill that aids the island women and is soon regarded as one of their own. Lena grows in character within her circle of friends and, with Beth’s support, treads new ground by conducting her own business. Bitter consequences follow from her activity but, staring down her tormentors, she dares to carry on regardless of further consequences. The characters of Rose and Clem open and close the other significant part of this story. They are as well defined as Beth and Val and Lena, and each brings richness to this tale.
One of the strongest forces drawing the reader into this story is the settings that are painted with a skilled and knowledgeable hand. The book opens in Fremantle where Beth and her father Clem are arguing over the idea that Beth should go away for a while. With Beth’s departure we are treated to a description of a tropical island somewhere near Papua New Guinea. The writer lovingly describes the sights that greet Beth.
“Morning Misis Val,” an older woman says as they pass, and Val answers in words Beth doesn’t understand. Others greet them or look to the ground. Most smile and giggle at the two white women and Beth sees their teeth, thick with red gunk, and her stomach lurches. The sickly smell of old sweat cloys the air”. (17)
It is a familiar scene for travellers landing at the airport in Port Moresby.
Characterisation, setting and atmosphere all work together to serve the book well. At one point Beth and Pirate have found each other, but Pirate is feckless. Beth knows that at any time he could walk away from her. “In one breath she wants him to stay, and in the next she wants him to go. She knows she’s been fighting it all day: she’ll feel ripped apart when he leaves. In the slipperiness of night she berates herself” (255).
I found this story a pleasure to read but it did raise questions that were not convincingly answered. The reader is asked to consider the concept of a home. We look into the lives of people in very different homes. We know the picture that the author is painting for us. However, there is no departure from the abstract level to drive home the point that each character defined her or his home, that what this story reveals about a home can be summed into ‘A’ or ‘B’ or ‘C’.
There is an additional point I was going to leave but have decided I must mention. I must urge the author to find an artist who can produce a cover worthy of the book. Publishing a book and gathering sales is a highly technical, cost-intensive business, and requires a very good quality cover.
Nevertheless, a fine book that develops pleasantly and leaves the reader satisfied.
By Nicole Sinclair
Margaret River Press
$AU27; 417+ pp