I had never any of read Nicole Alexander’s work, despite that fact I’d heard her speak at the HNSA conference and had seen her books lining the library shelves. But when asked whether I’d like receive a reviewing copy, I readily agreed. I’m not sure why? Maybe just the offer of a free book? I don’t generally read rural romance (like where are the Welsh characters?) and I knew Alexander’s books were set in outback Queensland. The accompanying press release confirmed this knowledge. Adding that her latest novel, An Uncommon Woman, was inspired by Alexander’s own challenges as a grazier in a man’s world. I imagined a tough, fictionalised, version of a Sara-Henderson-like story with “romantic” elements.
As it turns out, I was wrong. On a number of counts.
An Uncommon Woman tells the story of Edwina, the nineteen-year-old daughter of money lender, social climber and small town outsider Hamilton Baker. Edwina works the land alongside her younger brother Aiden. The property is overrun by prickly pear. Edwina has ideas for its improvement but they are met with stony resistance, not only from her father, but also from the less-than-visionary heir to the property, Aiden. The siblings have lived in comparative isolation since their mother’s death years earlier. When the circus comes to the nearby town of Wywanna both are keen to attend. The circus is out of the question, according to Hamilton, who leads a secret double life in town. But his prohibition is met with opposition. As the siblings rebel in their unique ways, a train of events is set in motion from which there can be no easy escape.
So, what did I like about this book?
Edwina’s third person viewpoint is delightful. She is practical, entrepreneurial and yet delightfully naive and feminine. It is not easy setting an ambitious female protagonist in a time when women were not supposed to stand out but Alexander manages to pull it off. Under her careful pen, Edwina’s prank in Wywanna, her reactions to her two would be suitors, her tender memories of her mother, and her driving ambition are all eminently believable.
Hamilton Baker is a singularly unlikable character. At first I couldn’t work out why Alexander insisted on telling half the story from his viewpoint. But as the narrative unfolded, her purpose became clear. Although I can’t say I liked Hamilton by the end of the novel, I liked what Alexander did through him. His alternating viewpoint lifted the story above being a simple romance and gave it a complexity I hadn’t expected.
There are “romantic” elements in An Uncommon Woman, from both Edwina and Hamilton’s points-of-view. Through snatches of quirky dialogue, Edwina’s two potential suitors spring to life, as does Gloria, Hamilton’s delightfully strong and no-nonsense mistress. Alexander develops these relationships in a way that emphasises choice and strong character without robbing them of their romance. Here is a segment in which the sheltered Edwina she is forced to cut Will’s hair:
“Keeping equal distance between hair and shirt-collar Edwina did her best to curtail the thoughts that came with each snip of the scissors. Novelty mixed with self-consciousness, as her fingers grazed sun-burnt skin. She cut slowly, and methodically, noticing the twirl of his ear, the thinness of the lobe, the fine ceases on a neck that for some inexplicable reason she wanted to touch, and all the while brown hair fell in clumps onto the towel about Will’s shoulders. She dusted away the thick locks, blowing softly on his neck, watching as the silky tufts fell to the ground.”
The blurb on my copy of the novel concluded with the words:
“And when the night ends in near disaster, this one act of rebellion strikes at the heart of the Bake family. Yet it also offers Edwina the rare chance to prove herself in a man’s world. The question is how far is she prepared to go, and how much is she prepared to risk?”
Blurbs are hideous to write, filled as they are with adjectives and obligatory melodrama. On the basis of the blurb, I expected death or significant impairment to follow the circus incident, with Edwina rising impressively to the occasion (think Sarah Henderson meets Places in the Heart). Yet, the near disaster Alexander gives us involves champagne, circus characters, a slow building scandal, and a missing lion cub whose reappearance at various points in the story give the narrative a playful air. Add to this, identity confusion, boundary disputes, and a mute station-hand, and there is barely room for stereotypes. Even the nasty overseer is not quite as he seems.
I like a novel with a strong sense of place and from it’s opening lines:
“The land was thick with aged trees and prickly pear. The smaller succulents grew in dense clumps, fleshy and spine-covered, while others stretched skyward, tangling with their brethren ten foot into the air so that the way ahead resembled an ancient forest.”
To its nicely interspersed descriptions:
“Beneath the wooden bridge boys fished for yabbies in the yellow green swirl, a mother hollering at the group to come home and do their chores. The wind gusted hot and dry across the fringes of the town. Grasses bending. The sky a razor’s edge of blue steel.”
There is never any doubt that An Uncommon Woman is set in Queensland where the weather is hot and people’s lives shaped by their hardships. I could almost feel the dust settling on my skin as I turned the book’s pages.
Clearly, I enjoyed this novel. To the point that I will keep an eye out for Alexander’s future works. The only thing lacking was a Welsh character. But, hey, we can’t all have Welsh heritage. 🙂 What Alexander gives us, is a non-stereotypical, historical rural romance which is a quirky, easy read, that defies the blokey white, Aussie-male-battler myth. Which makes it a pretty close second in my opinion.