Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
The Valley of Lost Stories written by Vanessa McCausland was inspired by a real place, the beautiful Capertee Valley in NSW. In this area of the Blue Mountains, all that remains of man-made structures are the crumbling buildings of a township set up for the shale oil miners in the 1950s, and the beautifully restored Art Deco hotel built in 1939. With the sandstone escarpment dropping down into a deep canyon, nature has excelled. The author through her beautiful descriptions has painted a picture of great beauty yet the history associated with this area has also made it a place of mystery and at times dread.
The book is divided into two parts. Part one introduces the reader to four women, all mothers of children who attend the same school. On first appearance, they are so different and normally would not gravitate to each other. However, at the school concert three of them become connected and make a pact that if one of them wins the raffle they will all participate. The prize one of them wins is the use of a beach home for a weekend which can accommodate three to four families. Unfortunately, the venue becomes damaged and is no longer available, but later, another in the Blue Mountains is offered.
The novel begins with the voice of a young child, ‘Mummy is lost. She never came down in the morning like the other mums came’ (1). The following chapters are narrated alternately by the four women who disclose some of their deepest thoughts. Each has insecurities which they try to hide from others. Each, though loving the children they have brought into this world, feel trapped in their present situation and believe a chance to get away, even for a short time, will give them the impetus to carry on.
While reading the first section of the book, I felt that the prologue and information about incidents from the past (1948), in a different place, which were presented without chapter numbers, had little to do with the people the reader was getting to know. However, once into part two, this information became relevant.
The environment and the hotel – ‘an anomaly of elegance, like a lady all dressed up with nowhere to go’ (129) – forms the setting for part two of this story.
Part two is about the women’s stay in the hotel in the Blue Mountains where this new destination seems to be bringing up all sorts of feelings. For Emmie, ‘She’d never been anywhere quite like this. There were so many stories here, she could almost feel them echoing off the majestic sandstone escarpment. Where the others felt fear or trepidation, she felt awed, inspired‘ (181).
After the women and their children arrive at their destination, two more characters appear who will have a huge impact on this party of women. The surrounding environment also plays a dominant part.
The story from 1948, which appears at intervals, is about the mysterious disappearance of one woman and the clandestine Cinderella-like experience of another. In the past, people have gone missing in this valley where our modern-day women find themselves, hence the nearest locals avoid the area. ‘It’s not somewhere people usually go out of their way to visit’ (332). ‘It’s beautiful enough…, but there’s a reason that valley is a ghost town’ (333).
The author has sensitively described the assumptions women make about others usually based on their outward appearance, and gradually, through their experiences in the valley, allows each of these women to understand some of the problems they perceive in themselves and others. At some stage, each of these women considers herself to be a bad mother.
Vanessa McCausland has worked as an entertainment and fashion reporter, as well as a News Limited journalist for the Daily Telegraph. She has written other books – her second book, The Lost Summers of Driftwood and her first, Star Attraction, which was published under her previous name, Vanessa Stubbs, in 2013. Vanessa lives in Sydney with her husband and daughter.
Her latest book, The Valley of Lost Stories, explores women’s issues of self-esteem, motherhood and the loss of individuality often associated with the child rearing years. Yet it is also about the relationships between women and their natural instinct to protect children, even those not their own. The characters are well developed, and there is an honesty to their thoughts and behaviours which mothers, in particular, will recognise.
The atmosphere created by the environment, its beauty and its history, which is so beautifully treated in this book engages the emotions making the reader feel, just like the women in the story, that something’s not right here about this place. The valley. The history. Those ruins. The stuff with the ghosts (299), especially when one of their group goes missing. It brings back memories of Picnic at Hanging Rock.
The Valley of Lost Stories
By Vanessa McCausland