A little while I got the most exciting email ever: would I like to host a discussion with two authors about their books at Muse Bookshop? Obviously the answer was yes, and this is one of the books.
“The Passengers” by Eleanor Limprecht is a historical fiction novel about a woman called Sarah who was an Australian war bride. After six decades of living in America, Sarah finally returns to Australia on a cruise ship with her granddaughter Hannah. On the journey across the Pacific, Sarah recounts to Hannah her story of growing up in rural New South Wales, moving to Sydney and meeting an American serviceman. Meanwhile, Hannah is going on a journey of her own and although she agreed to go on the trip to look after her elderly grandmother, Hannah comes to realise that sometimes she is the one who needs looking after.
Now, when you start reading this book, you should absolutely play this song. Just like the Waifs’ classic track, this is a beautifully whimsical book about a time of great change in Australia. Limprecht brings to life a tough country upbringing, the shifting dynamics between parents and adult children and the incredible bravery that it takes to move to another country forever. Sarah is a wonderful character who showcases the resilience and adaptability of so many young women who made that journey. When I interviewed Limprecht, I asked her to read out a passage and the passage I chose is right at the beginning of the book where Sarah is reminiscing about all the work she did with animals on the family farm. Reading about her dog Blackie, and how that upbringing directs her life later on, gave me a hitch in my breath. The conflict Sarah feels about her parents as she grows to better understand their private lives is palpable.
As a counterweight to Sarah’s story is the story of Hannah. Fiercely intelligent and about the same age as Sarah was on her voyage to the USA, Hannah’s own life is being stymied by a secret struggle. Where Sarah constantly looks outward and forward, Hannah is spiraling internally, choking on a past she’s never been able to talk about. Reading Hannah’s parts of the book was much harder than reading Sarah’s. Sarah is inherently a much more likeable character, but that could be because I found Hannah’s experience a little too close to home. Although Hannah is so much younger and has grown up in a much freer world, in a lot of ways Sarah is far more liberated and confident than her young granddaughter. However, I think that the contrast between past and present helps propel the story along and ultimately I think it was a good choice.
If you like historical fiction, this is a wonderful story filled with truths about the real women who took this incredible journey in the 1940s to a new country and a new life forever.
Content warning: mental health, self-harm.
This book had received quite a lot of attention when it first came out, and I was intrigued to read a book that not only has such a striking pearlescent cover, but is by a Canberra author as well. I picked up a copy and it sat patiently on my shelf for ages, but when I got my copy signed at the author’s event launching her newest book, I knew it was time to give this one a go.
“The Anchoress” by Robyn Cadwallader is a historical fiction novel about a teenage girl called Sarah in medieval England. Sarah decides to become an anchoress, secluding herself in a cell attached to a church to live the rest of her life in solitude and prayer. As the story progresses, the reader comes to learn why Sarah has chosen this hard, lonely life while Sarah learns that even as an anchoress, she cannot escape the outside world.
This is an ambitious book that is excellently crafted. It’s difficult to tell an engaging story completely set within a tiny cell, but Cadwallader brings to life a rich story full of engaging characters and moral dilemmas. You can tell the research that went into this book. Cadwallader conjures a world where the opportunities for a woman to make her own life are greatly limited, especially by the risks of childbirth. The day to day detail of this story brings medieval culture to life. In such simple times, even the smallest objects have so much meaning and utility. I think that my favourite parts of this book are the characters that Sarah interacts with, and the snippets of the outside world that she ultimately can’t escape. I also really loved how the discussion of writing a prayer onto an apple played out, and Sarah’s difficulty in interpreting her faith by balancing the wishes of the villagers and the decisions of the priests.
I think the only part of the book I struggled with was the ambiguity of Sarah either being haunted by the spirit of the previous anchoress Agnes, or suffering from some serious mental health issues. I appreciate that during medieval times, the line between mental illness and mysticism was much, much more blurry than it is today. However, I think that I would have liked maybe a little more focus on the mental health part and looking a bit more sharply at the damage Sarah was doing to herself rather than leaving it ambiguous.
This is a fascinating book that really immerses the reader into a medieval phenomenon that so little is known about. Cadwallader’s passion for her subject matter radiates off the page and I can’t wait to read more of her work.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.
“A Perfect Square” by Isobel Blackthorn is an Australian novel about two mothers and two daughters. Eccentric artist Harriet has her carefully controlled bohemian-bourgeois lifestyle in the Dandenong Ranges in Victoria upturned when her pianist daughter Ginny moves back home after a breakup. Tension crackles between them as Ginny tries to pry the truth about her father from her mother and they collaborate on a joint exhibition. In the UK, another artist called Judith struggles with her own daughter Madeline, and as the novel progresses the connections between the two families become more and more clear.
This is a dark and fraught story about the complexity of female relationships, and particularly mother-daughter relationships. I found Harriet a particularly fascinating character who straddles privilege and a more modest artistic lifestyle, who balances innate talent against anxiety about originality, and who wants to see her daughter flourish yet feels envy about her daughter’s success. I felt like there was some real honesty in the way that Blackthorn described an artist’s life. Harriet’s self-doubt and reliance on selling her artworks rather than just painting whatever felt very real to me. Blackthorn also explored some interesting ideas about fatherhood, being a single parent, and how much love and affection is the right amount to give to children.
The focus of the novel was definitely on Harriet and Ginny’s relationship, but the second half of the book had much more of a thriller theme. There were two families, but the majority of the story was so much about Harriet and Ginny that Judith and Madeline were effectively only support characters. I think that I would have liked to have seen either equal airtime for Judith and Madeline to better strengthen the overall sense of suspense, or to have removed them altogether and let Harriet and Ginny carry the story by themselves. I also felt a little like Ginny’s two best friends were support characters as well. It seemed like they had no lives of their own outside Ginny’s sphere of perception and I didn’t feel like Ginny had individual relationships with either of them.
A tense story with some difficult yet universal themes, this book gives an interesting perspective into the lifestyle of artists and expectations around motherhood.