5 stars The Whole Bright Year is the second adult novel by Australian playwright, television scriptwriter and author, Debra Oswald. Young widow Celia Janson and her sixteen-year-old daughter Zoe were picking the peaches by themselves. Old Roza, their fruit packer, watched from the shed. Their regular pickers hadn’t turned up and the ripe Red Havens needed to be picked this week.
When Roza’s son Joe turned up with a tattooed young bloke and his pierced older sister, a pair he’d rescued when their car broke down, Celia was uncertain. She wanted to be cautious, to refuse. Without a car, they’d need to stay onsite, and to Celia, they were an unknown quantity.
Celia had come to the farm fifteen years earlier determined to give her baby daughter a safe and secure life, something she no longer trusted of the City. Ironically, Sheena had dragged Kieran away from the City for a similar reason, although this spiky woman wasn’t prepared to spill their life stories to Celia.
Desperate circumstances saw Celia taking them in as pickers: she would get her peaches picked; they would earn enough to get the car back on the road. No one there just then could have anticipated quite how profoundly it would change all their lives.
Oswald’s characters have depth and appeal and the reader cannot help but care about their fates. Firm favourites are likely to be the irrepressible Kieran, whose joy is infectious, and the solid and steady Joe. Oswald firmly anchors her tale in the late 70s with games, TV shows, music and current events and, while it’s a world devoid of social media, mobile phones and other electronic devices, it is bound to arouse some nostalgia in readers of a certain vintage. Social attitudes (a persistent undercurrent of xenophobia) and considering foods like stuffed peppers as exotic also reflect the times.
Oswald’s descriptive prose will make the reader want to pick a peach, hold it up to the nose, inhale deeply, and then take a bite, letting the juice run down the chin. But those descriptive talents can also evoke the opposite: “For Christmas, Heather went in for torturing the food into shapes. This year there was a bright-green jelly mould with chunks of vegetables trapped inside, surrounded by a wreath of lurid yellow Cheezels. Some kind of tinned fish has been mixed with artificial substances and what appeared to be a can of pineapple chunks, then formed into a fish shape. Heather was clearly most proud of an object shaped like an igloo made from ‘Deb’ dehydrated potato, with a sausage-meat interior. The reconstituted mashed potato formed a dry grey crust like an unfortunate skin condition, and the stuffing gave off a greasy smell like dishwater left in a sink too long, the smell of resigned misery.”
Oswald’s thoroughly credible plot explores the balance between protecting our children and letting them experience life, the pitfalls of judging on appearances, and the anxiety and heartbreak that result when a loved one goes missing. There’s no Hollywood happily-ever-after ending but a believable conclusion. Funny, heart-warming and thought-provoking, this one is even better than Oswald’s debut novel.