Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
This novel, set in the early twentieth century, turns a light on the big property owners in South Australia and the Northern Territory. These were the families with money who had come from countries overseas and strove to set up dynasties in Australia. But things don’t always work out as people would like. The novel also highlights how family status and pride were more important than family relationships and how a little boy who did not experience parental love in his formative years found it impossible in later life to show his feelings to others except in anger.
Ross Grant was the younger son and he idolised his older brother even though Ross was the one to be punished for his brother’s escapades. Under family influence, the older brother experienced the glory of going to war to glory while the younger had to stay home and endure the slurs of being branded a coward. When his brother disappeared during the war and was branded a deserter, to save the family name, Ross was coerced into marrying a woman he had never met. Determined to retain some control over his life he deserted his new wife immediately after the wedding, going to the Territory to one of the outback properties belonging to his family.
Ross was a hard worker and respected for his skills, but his earlier up-bringing meant he found it hard to get on with others. However, he fell desperately in love with a mixed-race girl who had been sold in marriage to another. Once again, he believed that family and circumstances had conspired against him and he was determined to have his way. This made him reckless and he spurned all those who tried to reason with him. However, he had underestimated the strong will of his wife who followed him to the Territory. Still he would not deviate from his determined path which nearly ended in self- destruction.
There were those around him who were just as determined not to give up on him, even though he treated them disrespectfully. I could not help but admire the Scotsman, Connor, who spent his whole life looking out for Ross, only to be on the end of countless abuse. I also admired Darcy, the woman Ross was forced to marry. Where Ross spent his life fighting everyone, she, with dignity and grace, tried to make the best of her situation even endeavouring to ‘re-educate him, to draw out the dominant characteristics of the culture he’d been born into (although he saw this) as if she were the potter and he the clay’ (359).
She was prepared to do what needed to be done. ‘I know what your letter said, Ross. No promises. It was the same for me. I followed you here for the reasons I gave in my note. Duty lay at the heart of my decision and that obligation was centred on my love for Waybell and its people’ (359). As far as Ross was concerned he ‘was simply the custodian of the remains of someone’s else’s life’ (231) and he did not like it.
The book did highlight the ruggedness and vastness of the outback and some of the hardships endured by people who made a living there. Race relationships formed a thread throughout this book and the need to compromise to some of the situations people found themselves in, was accepted by all except Ross. There was a mellowing in him in later years that allowed him to experience some sense of peace and realisation of how his life might have been.
It was a good storyline, even though I could not admire the main protagonist. I could understand some of the issues that had moulded him during his lifetime. He did redeem himself in the end but by that time it was nearly too late. Acknowledging how his growing admiration for his wife had blossomed into a deep love he found it hard to understand how he deserved it. Even then it needed Darcy to bolster him. ‘Don’t you think you’ve punished yourself enough. You’ve spent your life fighting the desires of others, until you ended up fighting yourself…You’re a strong man. The man I grew to love, against all odds, but a man who still hasn’t managed to absolve himself from the errors of the past’ (383).
As a fourth-generation grazier, Nicole Alexander has an intimate knowledge of the land and the work required by the men and women who choose to give their lives to it. This is her ninth novel in which she draws attention to the Australian outback and the resilience of the men and women who live there. She has been recognised for promoting Outback Australia and providing a strong female role model for rural professionals.
At the end of the novel I was left to wonder what would happen to those members of this particular family who remained in the outback. That may yet turn out to be the focus of yet another novel. I would recommend this story to others as it is not just a story line which is easily forgotten. It leaves the reader with questions concerning their own beliefs and actions in life and, if their situation was similar to that in the novel, considering how they would have responded.
By Nicole Alexander
Penguin Random House