Reviewed by Ian Lipke
This is the story of two friends who grow up on neighbouring properties in the Kimberley region of northern Australia. At age 15 they make a pact that neither will ever screw up their friendship. However at age eighteen, on the offer of places in a university, Tom Forrest kisses Willow ‘Banjo’ Paterson, and in so doing in Banjo’s eyes, voids the contract. What follows is ten years of estrangement on Willow’s part and hurt and anger on Tom’s when his letters to Willow go unanswered. When Willow’s father falls ill, his daughter returns from a life of academic study to convert her father’s property into a sustainable, organic cattle station.
The author of this novel is better known to her West Australian readers as S.D. Wasley, a writer of mystery, paranormal and urban fantasy novels. She has a background in writing corporate brochures and ad scripts. This is her first venture into rural romance.
For readers of romance novels placed in a rural setting this novel is a well told story that clutches at the heart strings and provides hours of escapist relief. Tom Forrest has grown into a big, powerful man and “for a moment Willow didn’t know where to put her eyes” (65). But Tom was hard and cold towards her and Willow is forced to read the letters that had come to her from Tom and which had remained unopened. Deep, satisfying drama, made more mysterious by those letters whose contents we do not yet know.
The letters are the key to the whole story. While the cover blurb intrigues with the statement that “something came between them that Willow cannot forget” the letters clarify the mystery. They are very well written and, in combination with those written by Willow elsewhere in the book, reveal the author’s background skills in communication. The revelation that Willow has never read them explains why Tom treats Willow with disdain and why Tom’s mother is so cold.
An explanation for Willow’s behaviour is found later in the book but is not strong enough to explain her appalling insensitivity. The variables that make a reader like or dislike a character are many. However, in his case, the letters are so powerful that every reader must surely stand with Tom and, consequently, range themselves in opposition to Willow. He is seen as a strong, likeable individual whose very popularity with readers diminishes the attractiveness of the woman he loves.
This is a pity as there is much to like about Willow. She is courageous in her beliefs, steadfast in support of her father and friends, honest in her relationships with the men who work for her, and determined to stick-up for the rights of others. When Tom is in difficulties she exhibits a rational approach to managing the financial obligations of each property owner while flying to his side at the first opportunity. That her ideas for creating a station conducted on organic principles might be considered by some to be fantasy is very likely, but is countered by the very real knowledge the author shows in her description of a mob of cattle with the scours in Chapter 18. This information is authentic and reveals a depth of knowledge learnt only through first-hand experience.
The minor characters are alive. Barry, the crusty old squatter, Jean the cook who has her own embedded style of creating meals for the men, Hegney the slippery villain who undermines Willow at every turn, and Willow’s sisters Beth and Free, each an individual in their own right. It is a sign of strong writing that the reader never confuses anyone of these with another. When Free is on centre stage the reader knows instantly which sister she is.
A very effective technique to make characters appear human is used to fine effect in this book. Gifts of little value except as reminders of things past or as aids to present practice and clearly of no practical use whatever are exchanged by the lead characters and used as fillers to suggest a relationship that is distinctly their own. They become more human as a result.
A charming book overall and recommended for holiday reading.
By Sasha Wasley