Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Eleanor Limprecht is an author and creative writing lecturer who has had many short fiction, book reviews, feature articles and essays published and is on the board of directors at Writing NSW. The Coast is her fourth novel published following What Was Left in 2013, Long Bay in 2015 and The Passengers in 2018. Her historical fiction appears to throw a light on those who have been shoved to the fringes of society.
During research for her second novel, she discovered that a quiet idyllic suburb to the south of Sydney, at the turn of the twentieth century, was the location of a leprosy colony. This triggered more research into ‘how the people trapped with this highly stigmatised disease lived in isolation’ (316). This information resulted in her latest book, The Coast.
While reading about the inhabitants of the lazarets in this book, I could not help but be reminded of the way the sufferers of AIDS were treated before a better understanding of that disease was unveiled. Although leprosy still exists, a greater understanding and name change to Hansen’s Disease has helped sufferers experience less hatred and fear than those in this story.
There are thirty-eight chapters in this story which tell the life experiences of five main characters. Swinging from one to another, at different times in history from 1892-1926, when there at first appeared to be no link between them had me confused at times. This was not helped by people who entered the lazarets changing their names on entry. This I believe was to protect their families still living in the wider community.
Once a connection does become clear the reader is able to follow the existence of a nine-year-old girl, who believes she is visiting a mother she has not seen for many years only to find that she is being admitted and will stay with her mother in the lazaret.
The reader learns much about the disease, the inhabitants and the medical staff at such an establishment. When being introduced to Jack who becomes Guy, the author provides great detail about The Stolen Generation and the treatment of people of colour at this time in Australia’s history. At one stage Jack wondered what frightened others the most – ‘his blackness or his leprosy’ (169). When he goes off to war, a deep insight is provided into the Light Horse Brigade, the load the horses had to carry and the Battle of Beersheba.
It was when reading about this that I came across some unusual sayings such as ‘he knew his tentmates like he knew the back of his own teeth’ (132) and ‘if they were on watch together the time flowed like sand’ (133). This was probably appropriate considering their location at the time. I particularly liked the way the author described the disease of leprosy like a tree catching fire (148).
But the main storyline follows Alice and her new life living with a mother she hardly knew, the main doctor treating her, Will Stenger, and later Jack (Guy). It follows her life over fifteen years as she grows to be a woman and as her condition worsens.
This is a story about hardship and ‘how isolation shrinks a life’ (45). It is about ignorance, distrust and discrimination. But it is also a story of endurance, love and compassion and a hope that if better understood then the stigma associated with the disease would lessen.
Although this is a sad tale, it is told with compassion. It is a story which gives the reader much to ponder.
by Eleanor Limprecht