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Book DetailsISBN: 9780143793724
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Book Review: The Burnt Country by Joy Rhoades - Reviewed by CloggieA (11 Jul 2019)
“Kate was sure she didn’t need a solicitor. Doctors were for the dying, and solicitors for the guilty, her father always said. The locals would assume the worst.”
The Burnt Country is the second novel by best-selling Australian author, Joy Rhoades. If three years of good rain and productivity at Amiens have been a reprieve from Kate Dowd’s biggest concerns, that all seems to be coming to an abrupt end in November, 1948. Her estranged husband, Jack has returned from the islands intent on a divorce, to which Kate is agreeable, but the price he is asking in return for not smearing her reputation is an amount that is beyond her wherewithal to raise. And sell Amiens? She could never do that.
The Aborigines Welfare Board, an inflexible bureaucracy which Kate considers is more intent on following regulations than actually caring for its charges, has issued her an ultimatum: by the end of the month, she either hands over her almost-three-year-old half-sister Pearl to be adopted by a white family, or the child’s aboriginal mother, Daisy will be moved from her position at Amiens to another employer.
Despite the fact that Harry Grimes, now thirteen, has been happily living and learning at Amiens, his recently-returned great-uncle (and Amiens ex-manager) Keith Grimes is insisting a very reluctant Harry come to live with him. Also back on the scene, Luca Canali, the man Kate is trying hard to convince herself was merely a wartime indiscretion and not the man she loves.
On top of all this, a horror bushfire season is predicted, and Kate’s carefully managed back-burns have met with disapproval from local graziers, the most vociferous of these being her close neighbour, John Fleming. “Kate knew: the same rules didn’t apply to her as to other graziers, to the men. If she did anything that was disapproved of the town felt, without exception, that she needed to be taught a lesson, as if she were a child.”
Once again, Rhoades captures the mood and feel of the mid-forties farming community with consummate ease. In the era she describes there were few rights for women, children, migrants and aboriginal people, and often even fewer to advocate for them. Sexism was de rigeur, sexual harassment not unusual and there was a common mindset that mixed blood aboriginal children could only be properly raised by white folk. Divorce carried a stigma, as did the misdemeanours of one’s elders.
Rhoades’s extensive research is apparent in every chapter; the dialogue is authentic and her characters are multi-faceted, harbouring secrets and displaying entirely human reactions to the dilemmas they face. Kate makes errors of judgement that add to her woes. But, when it matters most, there is support for Kate, some of it from surprising quarters. The irrepressible Harry Grimes, with his non-stop commentary, cheeky banter and unquenchable curiosity, is an utter delight.
Each chapter is prefaced by a quote (often relevant) from Kate’s essential reference book, The Woolgrower’s Companion (which never once concedes that the eponymous woolgrower might be a woman). This wonderful story is enclosed in a gorgeous cover and complemented with seven classic recipes and a list of thought-provoking Book Club Questions.
This sequel to The Woolgrower’s Companion easily stands alone but readers intending to read TWC should do so first (and why deny oneself that pleasure?) as the recap necessarily contains many spoilers. A brilliant, heart-warming novel that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned. This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Penguin Random House Australia and the author.
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