My local book club chose A room made of leaves by Kate Grenville for our last meeting. This was totally going to be a bingo square for book club, and then i realised the flora on the cover. So, Flora bingo space it is!
It’s an odd little book club, started by a group of women who went to teacher training college in the late 60s. They remained in intermittent/inconsistent touch with each other, forming the book club a few years ago. Then the daughter of one of the women joined in with a few of her friends. One of those friends is a work colleague of mine, and i asked to join – they let me in. I enjoy the group, although I don’t have the connections that the rest do.
Kate Grenville is an Australian author, who seems to have focused on telling the untold stories of the colonial period. We read one of her earlier pieces, The Secret River a year or two ago. I know from this i struggle to read her, so i opted for an audiobook, which really helped.
The book purports to be the secret journal of the wife of a significant figure in early colonial history- John MacArthur. He is credited with introducing the merino sheep to australia. I did not grow up in Australia, so my awareness of these key Australian figures and time periods is none.
The book is told in first person, with Elizabeth MacArthur recalling her childhood in Devon, on a sheep farm. After her father dies, she and her mother live with her grandfather and then when her mother remarries, Elizabeth lives as the companion of the daughter of the vicarage. In some ways this bit is like an Austen novel. It’s the same time period, and in many ways the same gentry class, even when they are clinging to it by their fingernails.
But this is the other side of the Austen world. A moment’s indiscretion at midsummer sees Elizabeth pregnant and hastily married to the impecunious and mercurial John Macarthur. It is not a happy marriage.
Financial needs drive Macarthur to join the NSW regiment, where he hopes to make his fortune.
The book focuses on the early years of Elizabeth’s life and then the first year or so in the Sydney settlement. It feels slow, and the writing is very descriptive. Very few people come off well in this story, probably for good reason. There are also some very bitter truths about the role of women and the constraints they faced during this time. Unlike in an Austen novel, Grenville is able to states these explicitly, Austen both knew her audience knew, but may not have felt able to articulate them. This freedom to comment on the restrictions women faced is something that marks the books as more modern.
The audio book narrator, Valerie Bader, does an excellent job.
There does not feel like there is much of a big dramatic story in this, it is more someone writing about their life in an extraordinary time, but focussed on their small routines and rituals, not the larger activity. And it does not cover much about her husband.
It was an interesting slice of Australiana, it made me reflect on the darker side of Austen novels, but i don’t know if I liked it that much.
So 3 stars.
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