Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Di Morrissey was one of the first 21st century writers to realise that people were ready for books set in Australia. The Thorn Birds was the most memorable of any earlier examples. Since then many writers have brought the Australian landscape to readers through their various novels. Since publishing her first, Morrissey has written over 24 novels and three children’s books, selling more than three million copies in her 25-year career.
Di Morrissey has been presented with the Lloyd O’Neil Award for services to the Australian book industry, inducted into the ABIA Hall of Fame and been made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM) in the 2019 Queen’s Birthday Honours in recognition of her significant service to literature as a novelist, and to conservation and the environment. With these accolades under her belt one would expect a well-polished story. This latest book does not disappoint.
Not all of her novels are set in Australia, but even those that are not, do have an Australian flavour. Her latest novel, Before the Storm, draws on her experiences as a cadet on The Australian Women’s Weekly magazine at age 17 and her work in launching, in 2015, The Manning Community News, a monthly newspaper covering local information in the Manning Valley, New South Wales.
This latest novel follows Ellie Conlan, a young career woman in IT who quits her job, in Melbourne, after being ‘stabbed in the back’ by an overly ambitious colleague. She retreats to Storm Harbour, a fictitious town on the Victorian coast and joins her grandfather who is keeping alive, The Storm Harbour Chronicle. This community has the calming effect that Ellie needs but she will never be able to go ahead with her life until she confronts an unpleasant experience she had earlier in her life.
In fact, there are many things that have been concealed in this community and as the story progresses all of them come to light. The mayor has had interesting experiences which she did not believe others needed to know about as does the 95- year-old matriarch of the O’Neill early settler clan. When Mrs O’Neill experiences the relief of revealing her past, she tells her close friends, ‘Never keep a secret… You not only deceive others, but you deceive yourself’ (360).
The title, Before the Storm, suggests that feelings are building, getting ready for a show-down and this is what happens in this book. It occurs to a small degree in Ellie’s life. It is also happening in the community of Storm Harbour, (a lovely play on the word), where unsubstantiated rumours of land sales and new development are circulating. People experience uncertainty about their future.
Tension builds through the actions of nasty on-line trolls and the bullying tactics of corrupt councillors, but it is mostly the not knowing that undermines the inhabitant’s peace of mind. And all is not well in the O’Neill family. Things must come to a head and they do that, just as a fierce storm hits the area at the celebration of a 95th birthday. ‘The sky to the south was the colour of a bad bruise. The storm was definitely on its way’ (368). This is a book about human relationships, jealousies, and greed.
I love the way this writer imbues her characters with so much wisdom. ‘Friendships, like flowers, can fade, be forgotten, or treasured in the everlasting garden of memory… Even if friends walk in separate directions, you carry the seeds of that friendship, knowing they can be replanted wherever you may be’ (117). Often ‘the deepest depression was cloaked by a cheerful demeanour that kept the tortures hidden’ (129). And what mother could argue with – ‘Mothers always wanted to fix things, make things right. And sometimes they just couldn’t’ (129).
The detours the author takes in the main storyline, add richness to the novel. The reader is given a brief glimpse into the art world, the early gold fields and into the human tragedy of a child being lost in the woods. There is also the attitude of entitlement which fosters resentment. ‘Never underestimate old money. The reins of influence are not relinquished easily’ (116).
The reader would appreciate the diverse characters of the residents who live in this small beachside town, their individual personalities and talents and their willingness to support their neighbours. Storm Harbour would be a wonderful place to live.
This hard cover book with paper dust cover, has been dedicated to “friends and colleagues around the world who work in all forms of media” and to “those who have lost their lives seeking to tell the truth and shine a light in dark corners” (The Weekend Australian Magazine, October 23rd 2020).
Once again Australia’s favourite storyteller has produced an interesting, enjoyable read.
By Di Morrissey
Pan Macmillan Australia