Tag Archives: Historical Fiction

Pachinko

Historical family saga novel about Japanese occupation of Korea

Content warning: suicide, HIV

I have heard a lot about this book and so when a copy made its way to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation’s Great Book Swap I hosted at work last year (go team Yirrikipayi!), I snaffled it up. This year is the 10 year anniversary of this incredible fundraising event, so make sure you sign up (using appropriate social distancing, of course). This is another book that has waited patiently on my shelf for a while, and ticks the box for two reading challenges I’m doing this year: the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge and #StartOnYourShelfathon.

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“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee is a historical family saga novel that spans from 1910 to 1989 in what is now known as South Korea and Japan. The book begins with the birth of Hoomie, a stoic, sensible man with two visible disabilities in a south-eastern seaside village in Japanese-occupied Korea. As the story progresses, the focus shifts to his young, pragmatic wife Yangjin and their beloved daughter Sunja. Seduced by an older, wealthy man, when Sunja discovers he is married, she is determined to forget him and raise their child alone. However, when a young Christian minister called Isak boarding at their home offers a solution, she travels with him to Osaka, Japan to start a new life. There, the reader meets Isak’s brother and sister-in-law, and we watch Sunja, her children and her children’s children unfurl in a country that, decades on, looks down on ethnic Koreans.

This book is a very compelling read and particularly in the beginning hooks you in. Lee has done exceptional research and the settings and era are fully realised, particularly through food, clothing and cultural norms. I have never been to Korea (and sadly had to cancel my honeymoon to Japan), but I had a number of Korean friends and classmates when I was in high school. A beautiful and unbelievably sweet Korean friend who only studied with us for a year had a similar facial difference to Hoomie. Lee’s exploration of how stigma associated with visible disability, intellectual disability and mental illness impacts not only the individual concerned, but their parents, children and even grandchildren, especially in relation to marriage prospects, gave me so much more understanding of what my friend must have gone through growing up.

I had another classmate who people used to say was part Japanese, was in gangs and had connections with yakuza. Reading this book really unpacked some of the meaning in this kind of talk for me, and how precarious the position was for Koreans who stayed in Japan after the war and ingrained racism became for these people who were no longer as Korean as the people left behind, but also not Japanese enough to be recognised as citizens. Disadvantage is something that marks Sunja’s family – evolving from poverty to racial discrimination. Even after Sunja’s children and grandchildren manage to claw their way to success, they are still marred by their ethnicity and for some, the knowledge that they will never be Japanese is too heavy a cross to bear.

I think one of the most interesting things about this book is it is only the second book I have ever read about a non-Western nation colonising another. I think these stories are incredibly important because it is a Eurocentric idea that the only examples of colonialism were Western examples, and because these themes of power imbalances, direct discrimination, stereotypes and structural inequality are universal themes that still play out around the world today. The title of this book, pachinko, was absolutely perfect. It references a key industry for several of the characters, but it also captures the struggle of trying everyday to win success in life when so much is left to chance and overnight someone tampers with the machine in such a succinct metaphor.

However, there were a few things about this book that I wasn’t completely supportive of. Lee introduces an ensemble cast, and the story skips from one character to another, highlighting a lot of the various social issues they are exposed to. As is tempting in a book of this magnitude, I think there were times where Lee tried to include too many things. Some of the stories As strong a proponent I am for inclusion, the parts of the book that deal with same-sex attraction felt gratuitous and lacking in the depth accorded to their heterosexual counterparts. I felt that while Lee very convincingly describes the situations her characters found themselves, I would have liked a little more development of the reasons why her characters found themselves there. Lee writes about suicides, and perhaps this is me showing some ignorance about the significance of cultural belonging in Japan, but I felt that the reasons weren’t expounded upon enough.

Anyway, a gripping book about a very important part of history in which it was occasionally a little difficult to see the forest for the proverbial trees.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Miss Austen

Historical fiction about Jane Austen’s sister

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publicist.

Miss Austen

“Miss Austen” by Gill Hornby is a historical fiction novel about Cassandra Austen, writer Jane Austen’s older sister. In her 60s, Cassandra drops in all but unannounced to the vicarage in Kintbury to visit Miss Isabella, also a spinster, following the death of her father Reverend Fulwar Craven Fowle. Close family friends, Cassandra was once engaged to Fulwar’s brother Tom and her sister Jane was a keen correspondent with Fulwar’s wife Eliza. After Jane’s death and continuing success as a novelist, Cassandra appoints herself the keeper of Jane’s reputation and is determined to make sure that nothing compromising remains.

This is an interesting novel that tackles a great mystery in the history of Jane Austen: why did Cassandra burn so many of her letters after her death? Hornby has chosen a good subject for her novel, and has clearly spent a lot of time researching the Austen family and the places they visited and lived. I felt that Hornby captured the linguistic style of the time well, particularly in the letters, and the idyll of coastal towns and country villages. I actually visited Jane Austen’s house in Chawton last year, and it was a lovely experience visiting some of the other haunts of the Austen family including the range of wealth among the siblings. I think Dinah the maid was one of my favourite characters and her sneakiness and loyalty to Miss Isabella were very enjoyable to read.

Jane Austen’s writing desk at Chawton

I think there were two things that I wasn’t fully on board with. One was the reason why Cassandra seeks out Jane’s letters to scrub them from the official record. Hornby wrote the letters really beautifully, but I think I would have liked a little more artistic license. The contents of the letters is the one unknowable thing, and I felt Hornby could have added a bit more spice, intrigue and controversy and drawn some modern themes into a classic period. The other thing was the rationale behind Cassandra’s spinsterhood, and I would have liked a bit more commitment either to her one true love or her chosen path as dutiful sister.

A relaxing and easy read that tells a little-known story, but that could have used a touch more drama.

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Life After Life

Historical fiction novel about the chance to relive a life

Content warning: stillbirth

This is one of those books that you buy because based on the little you’ve heard about it and the pretty cover, you’re certain you’re going to enjoy it. Sometimes books like this are cursed with waiting on the bookshelf for a long time because you’re never quite sure when the right time to read it is going to be. I guess I was in need of a good book, because I finally picked this one up. I read it a little earlier in the year, and there are quite a number of chapters that deal with the Spanish Flu, which, given circumstances at the moment, seemed like quite the coincidence.

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“Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a historical fiction novel about Ursula, born into a well-to-do English family during a blizzard on 11 February 1910. Despite her family’s relative privilege, Ursula does not survive the birth. However, Ursula is reborn again during a blizzard on 11 February 1910 and this time she does survive. However, surviving life is no easy feat. Gradually, Ursula begins to vaguely remember things from her past lives and atrocities to come, and starts to wonder if she could prevent them altogether.

This is a beautifully written book that gently explores the impact that small decisions made in the moment can have on the rest of our lives. Atkinson also closely examines identity, family and what it means to be British. There is so much in this book, and it extremely well-executed. I adored the scenes with Ursula’s family, particularly her brothers Teddy and to a lesser extent Jimmy. I also loved how the family collectively disliked her older brother Maurice but included him in everything anyway. Her parents are fascinating characters, and at the end of the book, you find yourself wondering if perhaps there was even more to them than met the eye.

Fox Corner is a beautifully idyllic home that is a respite from the atrocities later experienced in the UK during the first half of the century. However, I also enjoyed how Atkinson shows that Ursula, in many of her lives, outgrows Fox Corner and her mother’s values that, while once progressive, are now conservative.

However, there were definitely parts of this book that I enjoyed more than others. While I certainly felt that each chapter had something to say, there were some chapters that were a little more slow and abstract than others without Atkinson’s knack for interpersonal relationships to drive them as they had the others.

Nevertheless, I was not disappointed at all in this book and I am very tempted to go and buy the second.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Bring Up the Bodies

Historical fiction about the Tudors

Some time back I read “Wolf Hall“. If you haven’t yet read that book, you might want to skip this review and go to the beginning. Anyway, I found out that there is quite an excellent miniseries adaptation of the first two books of the Thomas Cromwell series done by BBC. I didn’t want to watch it before I finished the second book, and with the recent release of the third book in the series, I very was motivated to read it. I borrowed this lovely copy from my friend, and the gold cover is really spectacular.

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“Bring Up the Bodies” by Hilary Mantel is the second book in her historical fiction series about the court of King Henry VIII of England, but in particular about Thomas Cromwell. The book picks up almost immediately after the first left off. Cromwell has been promoted to the position of Master Secretary to the King’s Privy Council after securing the King’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. However, the marriage is not going well and while he and the King are guests at the Seymour family’s estate Wolf Hall, the King begins to develop an interest in young Jane Seymour. However, despite setting a precedent with his former wife Catherine, Anne will not go quietly and Cromwell is tasked with finding the solution.

It’s hard to follow any novel with a sequel, and Mantel had the additional pressure of following up a Booker Prize winning novel with a sequel. However, after reading this book, it is hardly a surprise that Mantel won the Booker Prize again becoming the first woman in history to win twice. She doesn’t break her stride at all, and Cromwell is as complex and compelling as he was in the first novel. The writing is just as exquisite and the motivations she finds for such a singular person as Cromwell and his actions speak universally.

Something that this book made me realise was how critical to the nation’s security it was at the time for Henry to have a male heir. There is an incredible scene not too far in the book where all the characters realise that if Henry were to die, there is no backup plan. Without Henry and without a prince, the country would be thrown into chaos. I also really enjoyed how Mantel unpacks Cromwell’s efforts at eroding the power of the Church. With the Catholic Church under considerable scrutiny these days, it is fascinating to read about how the state took on the church nearly 500 years ago.

The only difficulty I had with the first book really was that it was very dense politically. This book is political, certainly, but the politics now are far more personal. Cromwell assumes the role of an investigator, and necessarily must interview peoples and revisit events and rumours multiple times before he can confidently present the evidence that will remove Anne. This means there are parts of the book that feel a little repetitive, though Mantel does a stellar job of bringing new perspectives to previously understood information.

An excellent piece of historical fiction which has made me very much look forward to the final book in the trilogy.

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Gods of Jade and Shadow

Mayan historical fiction fantasy novel

After rushing to meeting my reading goal last year, I decided I wanted to start off the book with something that looked really appealing. This book jumped out at me in Harry Hartog. The cover is so beautifully designed (purple and turquoise are my favourite colours) and when I read the blurb I simply couldn’t resist.

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“Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a fantasy novel set in 1920s Mexico. The story follows Casiopea, a young woman who is relegated to doing menial housework in her wealthy grandfather’s house while her cousin, a young man of a similar age, is allowed to socialise and spend their grandfather’s money. One day, when Casiopea is made to stay home while her family go out, she opens a mysterious chest in her grandfather’s room and accidentally sets a Mayan god free. Bound together, he promises that if she helps him regain his thrown in Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, he will grant her every wish she has. Eager to escape her life, Casiopea accepts. However, it is only once they are on the run from region to region in Mexico, that she realises how much is truly at stake.

This is an original, complex novel that brings a colourful period of Mexico’s history to life. Moreno-Garcia explores the diversity of Mexican culture, society and landscape and expertly handles the tension between traditional Mayan beliefs and modern values. Casiopea is a great protagonist through which Moreno-Garcia examines multiple perspectives, but of particular interest is own Casiopea’s identity as biracial woman. I really enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia handled Casiopea’s rebellion against the traditional female role that had been set for her. I also really enjoyed how Moreno-Garcia takes the reader on a journey through Mexico, and the sense of place from desert to cenote is very strong throughout. Moreno-Garcia has a very unique style of writing with a lot of original and colourful imagery. I loved the scenes between Casiopea and Hun-Kamé, and how as they grow closer, they begin to lose parts of themselves. Moreno-Garcia leaves the reader with many questions about what it means to be human, and what it means to be a god.

Although I enjoyed almost everything about this book, Moreno-Garcia’s writing, while almost always refreshing, was occasionally a little startling with some rather idiosyncratic turns of phrase. I also felt that while, on balance, the ending was the right one, things were left perhaps a bit too open-ended for me. Without giving too much away, I think it would have been stronger if the character Loray had been fleshed out a little more throughout the story.

A really enjoyable read that was as pretty inside as it was out.

 

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The Harp of Kings

Historical Celtic fantasy novel 

Content warning: family violence

After somewhat of a writing hiatus, one of my favourite authors has come back with force, and I was thrilled to find out she was releasing a new trilogy of novels. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I picked up a copy from Harry Hartog and couldn’t wait to read it. I’ve also been inspired to make a Spotify playlist that you might like to listen to while reading this review.

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My partner and I both have Irish heritage, and he received this beautiful bodhrán from his parents, and I the exquisite silver bookmark, after they visited Ireland a couple of years ago

“The Harp of Kings” by Juliet Marillier is the first book in her new “Warrior Bards” historical fantasy series. Set some 20 years after the events of “Blackthorn and Grim“, with connections to elements of the “Sevenwaters Series“, the story is about singer and musician Liobhan who is training with her brother Brocc to be an elite warrior on Swan Island. Liobhan has a rivalry with another young recruit called Dau and all three trainees are surprised when they are asked to go on an undercover mission on the mainland to recover a lost harp. Given new names, backstories and personalities, Liobhan, Brocc and Dau must not falter. With court intrigue, secluded druids and the possibility of otherworldly interference, any wrong step could put the mission, and the kingdom, into jeopardy.

It will surprise nobody that I adored this book. This is Marillier at her finest, and this book blends new characters and themes with familiar places. In particular, Marillier explores the lifelong impact of growing up as a child subjected to family violence, and in particular violence from siblings. Liobhan is a great leading character who has the moxie of Liadan in “The Son of Shadows” but exceptional strength, fighting ability and musical talent. However, Liadan is headstrong and must balance her ambitions, prejudices and integrity to make the right decision. I also loved Dau’s story arc, and how Marillier introduces him as seemingly a one-dimensional character whose courage and depth is explored in depth as he must allow himself to become vulnerable.

Although I loved this book, I have to say that of the three point of view characters, I was probably invested in Brocc’s story the least. I think this is possibly due to him being the most passive character in the book. While this does make sense given the plot, I did find myself looking forward to Liobhan and Dau’s chapters much more.

A fantastic beginning to the series, I can’t wait for the second. Knowing Marillier, there is undoubtedly a lot still in store!

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The Blue Rose

Historical fiction about botany and the French Revolution

Quite some time ago, when I was doing the ACT Literary Bloggers of the Future program (now renamed New Territory), I went along to see Kate Forsyth speak at the National Library of Australia. Afterwards, as I wrote in my blog post, Forsyth kindly did some book signings and when I showed her my name on a scrap of paper, she liked it enough that she wrote it down. She said that she was working on a book about a Welsh gardner, who perhaps might have a sister. She asked me what I liked, and I hurriedly said books and bunnies, and I left fervently hoping that this time I might have a character named after me. She did not disappoint.

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“The Blue Rose” by Kate Forsyth is a historical fiction novel about Viviane, the daughter of a Marquis who lives in a chateau in Brittany, France. Viviane grows up isolated, with no friends but the servants she is told not to socialise with, while her father lives at the court of Louis XVI. That is, until her father hires a gardener from Wales called David to rebuild the chateau’s gardens. David and Viviane immediately connect, but when Viviane’s father returns, David is chased away and Viviane believes he is gone forever. She is soon married off and sent to be a maid-in-waiting to Marie-Antoinette, but with unrest increasing in Paris, Viviane’s survival is far from guaranteed.

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I saw Forsyth speak again at Harry Hartog last year, and it was fascinating to listen to her discuss how research into her family’s history and a lifelong love of roses led her to research the first scarlet rose imported into France at the beginning of the French Revolution. Unsurprisingly, this line of inquiry led to a well-researched novel that covers a very well documented time in French history, but from a lesser-known perspective. Although Viviane is part of the French nobility, instead of great loss the Revolution ultimately brings freedom from the absolute patriarchy she lives under. For all her naiveté, she is sweet, resourceful and believable. Meanwhile David, a self-made man from a humble background, must learn temperance and patience if he is going to find success.

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Pulling back the curtain for a second, these are the conditions in Canberra right now

Although a medium size novel, it is one of significant geographic scale. Forsyth takes the reader from rural to urban France, and then from France to China – the home of the ancestor to most of today’s roses. Forsyth is also well-known for her fairy tales and fantasy, and draws upon a story about an impossible rose as a loose framework as well as a parable told within the novel. While David’s time in China is brief, Forsyth’s own travels and studies into the ill-fated British trading trip give fascinating insight into how diplomatic encounters unfolded in the 1700s.

This is a very ambitious book that covers a lot of ground during a tumultuous period of history, and at times I felt that the romance aspect of the novel got a little lost.  Viviane and David are in fact separated for the majority of the book. While it does feel like it is mostly Viviane’s story anyway, and I understand the narrative significance of David going off to seek his fortune while Viviane’s is all but taken from her, there wasn’t a lot of space left for relationship development. It is a complex and sophisticated book that I felt needed a tiny bit more of a central theme to tie everything together.

An important piece of historical fiction that brings together two key pieces of history. Having a character named after me was just a bonus.

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The Underground Railroad

Audiobook alternative history about the Underground Railroad

Content warning: slavery, violence, sexual violence

As I said in a previous review, I’m currently trying to motivate myself to go to the gym by listening to audiobooks only when I am at the gym. I was scrolling through the available books, and this one jumped out at me. I had heard that it had won lots of awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and they were more than enough credentials for me to try it out.

The Underground Railroad cover art

“The Underground Railroad” by Colson Whitehead and narrated by Bahni Turpin is an alternative history novel about slavery in the USA. The story is mostly about Cora, a young slave who lives on a plantation in the state of Georgia. When she was very young, Cora’s mother Mabel escaped without her. Left to fend for herself against attempts to steal her tiny plot of land, gang rape and beatings, when Cora is asked by another slave called Caesar to escape with him, she eventually agrees. The Underground Railroad, which Whitehead imagines as a literal railroad underground, takes Cora and Caesar to South Carolina. Given a job and a new life in a new city, Cora must decide which is greater: the cost to stay, or the risk to keep running.

This is a heavy, intense book that reimagines this period of American history and distills it to its essence. Whitehead’s depiction of the underground railroad as an actual railroad was so convincing, that I was most of the way through the book before I asked myself, hang on… This is an incredibly challenging book, and the seemingly never-ending variety of horrors enslaved people were subjected to is very difficult to hear. Cora’s characterisation as a resilient young woman living in her mother’s shadow, and with her mother’s abandonment, was engaging, and I thought that the last few chapters of the book were the best.

The ending really elevated this book for me, and I have to admit that there were parts of the book that did stretch on – especially when Cora was hiding in an in North Carolina, completely dependent with her health slowly ebbing away.  I think that while she was a clear narrator, Turpin had a sardonic, languid style that I felt was sometimes at odds with Cora’s inherent gumption and opportunism. However, it certainly aligned with the parts of the book where Cora was required to stay very still like on the railway, working in the museum and later in the attic.

A well-written, fraught and necessary book with a superb ending.

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Bodies of Men

Queer military fiction set during World War II

Content warning: war

I received an advance reading copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, but I would have bought a copy anyway because I know the author through his work with the ACT Writers’ Centre. Although not ordinarily a genre I would choose, I was willing to put my own feelings about war aside to give this book a chance.

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“Bodies of Men” by Nigel Featherstone is a war novel set in Egypt about two Australian men. William is a young corporal who, almost immediately after arriving in Alexandria, is caught in a skirmish with some Italian soldiers and is saved by another young man called James. Recognising him as his long lost childhood friend, the opportunity to reunite properly is lost when James is suddenly absent without leave and William is unceremoniously sent out into the desert to supervise training at an army depot. When William does find James recovering from injuries in a mysterious family’s house, the connection is undeniable. However, with constant patrols through Alexandria, rumours flying about what happened to the Italians taken prisoner, differences in class and the Hillens keeping their own secrets, William and James will have to decide how much they are willing to risk for a forbidden love.

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I accidentally visited the Australian War Memorial during the Last Post ceremony

As I intimated earlier, I don’t generally like war novels but I really liked this one. Featherstone has seamlessly blended in-depth research and knowledge with a thorough understanding of human connection and chemistry. One of the things that my friend and I keep records of every year on our book list is how many books we read include queer content. However, while I make an effort to read books by LGBTIQA+ authors and including queer content, it is rare that I find a book that depicts intimacy like this. Featherstone has a knack for finding the beauty in something that is rarely conceived of as beautiful or valuable outside its usefulness: the male body.

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I think that the only part of this book that I had difficulty with was the role of the Hillen family. On one hand, the secretive European family brought an extra dimension to the war and the context in which William and James were fighting. Their house was like an oasis in the heat. On the other hand, the refuge they provided to William and James did at times feel a bit like a deus ex machina and did not always seem, from an outsider’s perspective, like a fair exchange.

Nevertheless, this is a fresh and poignant story that builds on the tradition of military fiction and reinterprets it with a historical perspective that certainly existed but has rarely been told.

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Wanting

Historical fiction linking colonial Tasmania with Dickens’ London

Content warning: racism, colonisation

This book wasn’t my first choice and it didn’t have a particularly auspicious beginning. In my one and only attempt at a blind date with a book, at a bookstore with the punny name Hooked on Books which has long since closed in the coastal town Batemans Bay, I found myself unhappily with a book that was fourth in a series that had not read. Now, I appreciate that the point of a blind date with a book is that you get a book wrapped in brown paper and have no idea what might be inside. However, I didn’t really think it was in the spirit of the exercise to wrap a book that you needed to have read the first three in the series to appreciate. Anyway, I reluctantly asked to swap, and they reluctantly agreed, and I walked away with this book. It sat on my bookshelf half unwrapped for three years, and when I found myself with a second Flanagan book on my to-read pile, I thought it was about time I read the first.

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“Wanting” by Richard Flanagan is a historical fiction novel about the explorer Sir John Franklin and his wife Lady Jane Franklin, his stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and the cultural impact of his disappearance while on an arctic expedition. The book mostly splits between the story of Mathinna, an Aboriginal girl adopted then soon after abandoned by the Franklins, and Charles Dickens’ involvement in a play inspired by Sir Franklin’s disappearance. The two stories are connected not only by the Franklins, but by the theme of desire.

I really liked the beginning of this novel. The Protector is a fantastic character in his abhorrence and Flanagan’s sense of dramatic irony is second to none. I felt like it was a strong start and Flanagan captured the brutality, the indifference and the arbitrariness of colonisation and the devastating impact it had on the Aboriginal people of Tasmania. Flanagan is a strong writer and brings to life the terrible contrast between the increasing affluence of the white settlers, and the increasing desolation of the indigenous population.

The beginning was good, but there were so many things that irked me about this book. The juxtaposition between Dickens’ chapters and Mathinna’s chapters was jarring. I can see what Flanagan was trying to do, but I just don’t think it got there. Neither Dickens nor Franklin were compelling enough characters and I honestly eye-rolled my entire way through each of Dickens’ chapters. Mathinna was much more compelling, but I was very unhappy with the way that she was handled. Her story was told as a tragedy, and instead of giving her any agency at all, Flanagan depicts her as a victim subjected to horrific (and, in my opinion, largely unnecessary) violence.

This actually isn’t the first book I have read about the Franklins and Mathinna, and a lot of the criticisms I had about that book, I am going to echo again here. I just don’t think that the story of what happened to the original people of Tasmania needs to be bolstered by shoehorning in figures from the British literary scene of the 1800s. I wish that Flanagan had just excised the entire Dickens story and had stuck with Tasmania. The Franklins weren’t that interesting, and I wasn’t sure that cutting Franklin’s daughter Eleanor out was particularly strategic either because that was a missed opportunity for exploring the family’s interaction with Mathinna.

Anyway, I think that Mathinna’s story needs to be told and that someone, probably one of the incredible Aboriginal writers being published at the moment, needs to do it justice.

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