“Mama often talked of this house when I was a child, and of its squirrels with particular fondness.”
WE are in the grand manner of the novel as literary artifice, a swell of sentences, characters in the rough, an anchored sense of place, a moving perspective, the kind of parameters for which the format is uniquely designed and at its finest. It is a family history spanning 1834 to 1864 in south Australia. Mr Finch has managed to lose a fortune or two but his resolve to bring empire to the outback and to his children and suffering wife is undimmed.
Jane Austen gets a passing mention, as does Charles Darwin which seems appropriate as contemporaries of the narrator Hester who tells her story through a hubbub of brothers and sisters. The older boys Hugh and Stanton are rumbustious helpers on the farm, Hester has to fill in with the chores when mama is not well which is often and looking after baby Mary. Her willful sister Addie is never there when wanted, Fred is bookish and Albert always curious making the most of the outback. And we have Tull the clever adopted Aborgine boy who looks on at these strange people and their odd projects with skin so white like dead people. And Hester herself whose subject is maths. It pains her to watch papa going over the books when he is not (good at maths). He loves his God, his pipe and his principles, all of which test the family. As will his business escapades.
Sentences are long and rambling, Victorian frilly but the focus is sharp from the opening image of a squirrel trying to crack open a nut, the allusions are tightly controlled – the grasshopper trapped in cupped hands, whittling a piece of wood into a sharp end, a playful shot from a sling, all very pointed, blades twisted in a wound.
Every few pages Treloar drops in an old word we don’t often use these days like rumination, demureness, almanac, strictures, emcumbrances, plush, a mizzle etc to remind us of when and where we are. “Stanton was eating with the greatest efficiency”. Her vocabulary is sterling.
The ideas are timely, a revision of empire, of immigrants, of race, a story that brings a texture to an era that persuaded men like Mr Finch to sail a young family across the world and then out of the city of Adelaide in a dray to a half built wooden shanty house. “The journey…was like moving knowingly, dutifully, towards death” . The suffering and mishaps are offset at least in part by Hester’s youth and regard for all around her. Plus the knowledge from the outset that she is destined to survive, even prosper.
You feel the sweat of ambitions. Different ideas. Same sweat. Hester’s evolving relationships with those around her have their own charms as each of them grow up and their emotions are charted by way of an intimate, as yet untold constellation, a universal family. The finale is as heart-felt as it is heartbreaking, the loose ends are deftly tied up like Hester’s own sewing.
Lucy Treloar is Malaysian by birth and brings a neutrality perhaps to vexed contemporary clichés and real sense of the hardships and pleasures enjoyed on one of the frontiers of civilization. My imprint says the original was published by Picador in Australia in 2015 but here it was picked up by Gallic in 2017, another coup for them. I am told they were tipped off by a blogger :).