Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Tag: Salt creek

Wrap up for the 2017 Australian Women Writers’ Challenge

I am not a book blogger – trust me there are some serious book bloggers out there. However, I do believe in Australian Women Writers and, in January 2017, I signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.

For those of you who don’t know, the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge was started late in 2011 when, after reading a blog about the gender imbalance in book reviewing, Elizabeth Lhuede, an Australian poet, academic and romance writer, was forced to examine the gender imbalance in her own reading habits. The outcome,  the Australian Women Writers Challenge – a blog dedicated to reviewing of books by Aussie women.

 

In 2017, I committed to reading and reviewing a measly four books by Australian women in the historical fiction category. I could have aimed higher but I have commitment issues. Seriously, I prefer to exceed my goals than reach for the stars and land low with a thump. In the end, I reviewed many more books than anticipated.

I started the year with a review of Lucy Treloar’s magnificent Salt Creek and followed that up with a post about the seven seriously seductive Rowland Sinclair mysteries. So, that was eight historical novels in January. Am I a super-star or what?!

February I read two history books, one of them in Welsh language, just so you know I’m not a slouch.

In March, I read and reviewed three children’s historical novels, in preparation for an HNSA Super Session, as well as Alison Goodman’s sizzling second instalment, Lady Helen and the Dark Days Pact. Was I on a roll or what?

In April, I read Kim Kelly’s, Paper Daisies, as well as fellow Welsh language tragic, L..M Owen’s time-slip mysteries, Olmec Obituary and Mayan Mendacity.

In May/June, I was lost in Welsh speaking Wales.

Back in Australian, I hit the ground running with a review of Nicole Alexander’s historical novel, An Uncommon Woman.  I followed this up with an interview and review of Theresa Smith’s delightful contemporary novel, Lemongrass Bay. In August, I interviewed L. J. Lyndon, author of The Welsh Linnet, and Rachel Nightingale, author of Harlequin’s Riddle. I also reviewed Kate Forsyth’s, Beauty in Thorns.

In September, I reviewed Carole Lovekin’s Snow Sisters and interviewed Helen Lewis, author of The House with Old Furniture, both published by Gwasg Honno.

In October, I reviewed Bernard Cornwells’ Warlord Chronicles. They were not Australian, Welsh, or written by a woman, but they were magnificent. I had to write about them.

In November, I stepped out of my comfort zone and interviewed, Isobel Blackthorn about her seriously skin-crawling horror novel, The Cabin Sessions. This was followed by and interview with Maria Donovan, author of the delightfully cosy crime with unexpected Welsh elements novel, The Chicken Soup Murder.

In December, I read Wendy J Dunn’s Tudor novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds, but you’ll have to wait until January to hear about the book as I’ve asked the author to answer a few interview questions.

So, are you keeping up? What’s my tally?

  • I think that is 21 books by Aussie women – 19 of them, historical fiction
  • 3 contemporary novels by Welsh women
  • 3 historical novels by Bernard Cornwell – just because

At this time of the year, it is customary for book bloggers to name their favourite books. Which is tough. Especially as I am not a real a book blogger. However, if pushed, I’d have to say, Goodman gave us the most tortured love triangle, Lovekin gave us the most every-day magical, Lewis the most chilling commentary on contemporary British society, Blackthorn the most seriously disturbing read, and Theresa Smith and Sulari Gentil the most laugh aloud funny while L.J.M Owen and Maria Donovan gave me the most delightfully unexpected Welsh surprises. But sadly, I’m going to be a traitor to my gender, my adopted nation and my Welsh heritage by proclaiming Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles my pick of the year.

Tan y tro nesaf!

Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar – a tender loss of innocence

Having grown up in South Australia on a surfeit of Colin Thiele novels and having endured too many bleak windy drives along the Coorong, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek wasn’t initially appealing. In fact, I returned it to the library unread on that unsound basis. A few days later, however, when discussing my desire to find a recently written, Australian historical fiction coming-of-age novel (to be absolutely specific), I decided that decision needed to be re-visited. ‘It is nothing like Storm Boy,’ my friend assured me, ‘and it may well have the coming-of-age elements you are looking for.’

Set in the 1850’s the majority of Salt Creek’s narrative takes the from an extended flashback written from the first person viewpoint of fifteen-year-old, Hester Finch, as she and her family struggle to recover debts by attempting to farm the isolated, sandy reaches of the Corrong. As the family seek to make their peace with their reduced situation and the demands of their primitive location, they come into contact with mixed race aboriginal boy Tully. In line with Hester’s father’s seemingly enlightened principles, the family attempt to civilize the local Ngarrimderji. But when tragedies strike and events spiral out of control the true character of their ‘civilizing principles are exposed.

On the surface, this book may sound not unlike many other early Australian revisionist narratives that are being written in a much needed attempt to scrape away the white-washed veneer of Australia’s colonial past. However, to put this book in a more-of-the-same category would be mistake because, despite the familiar issues, it is fresh, interesting and unsurpassed on a number of levels.

Voice

Hester Finch’s looking-back-on-her-youth voice is unique and distinctive. We get a sense that she is at once young and old. Although the the main action in the book starts quite slowly, and there are some passages where the narrative seems to lose direction and become a little too detailed, we get a sense that Hester can be trusted. That this interesting, intelligent, unorthodox young woman will not waste our time telling a story of no consequence. Here is how she introduces the innocent character around which the plot of the novel turns:

‘Tull was already quite tall and narrow. He was no one in particular to us and over some months it was as if he were resolving under Fred’s microscope, until he was part of us and moving among us. A remarkable person: he altered our course, not only on the Coorong, but for always.’

Prose

Treloar’s prose is simple and unlaboured. But it has a quiet beauty that made the writer inside me weep with envy.

‘Her skin took the sun, turning dusky, and her eyes were pale as a calm sea close to shore, like the sea glass I found one day among the shells. Who knew where it had come from or where it had been? I also kept a piece of driftwood, which was differently transformed. It had turned to silk and weighed nothing at all. When I stroked it against my cheek it was like the touch of another.’

Characterization

Hester, her parents and siblings are all delightfully non-cliche both in their appearance and interests. Added to which, Treloar uses their spectrum of responses to the Ngarrindjeri people to add nuance to the homogenized view we are often given of frontier society. Her characterization of the aboriginal boy Tully is the triumph of the novel. Tully is at home in his original culture and increasingly with the Finch family, joining the children in their lessons, learning chess and reading Darwin’s Origin of the Species. His dialogue is refreshingly clear of awkward pidgin English attempts to show that he is a second language speaker, Treloar preferring to show this by an occasional search for unfamiliar words. When he froms an attachment for which he is eminently suitable – hard working, knowledgeable, intelligent, tender – apart from the  matter of his skin colour, we feel the sting of injustice.

Dialogue

The final wow factor of this novel is its dialogue. I’m hard pressed to find a single example as it generally flows gently out of the prose and slips back into the stream of introspection without a ripple, giving us tiny unexpected glimpses of character and theme at every turn.

‘What are rules?’ Tull asked.

‘The things people may and may not do.’

‘Oh yes. We have that too. A tendi.’

‘I did not know.’

‘We don’t eat some birds.’

‘Why not? Is the taste bad?

‘No. They make us sick. Boys, like me. Men can eat them. Other things too, some animals.’

‘Which animals?’

‘I don’t remember.’

‘We have so many rules I can’t remember them all. About manners and clothes and respect. People may not kill other people, or take things from them. That is stealing. We may not steal. And other things too.’

‘Take what?’

‘Well, cattle – kill and eat them that is. And we may not take your possessions.’ I could not think what they had that we might wish for. One black had a shell necklace that I admired. I had heard people in Adelaide liked the carvings on their weapons and collected them. ‘Your spears and clubs for instance. But you can sell them, if you like.’

‘Fish? Kangaroos? You kill and eat them?’

‘They are wild. They are on our land, but you may eat them Papa says.’

 

 

Since publication, Salt Creek has received wide acclaim and, having overcome my post traumatic experience of sitting in Mrs Morphett’s grade four classroom listening to my classmates taking turns to massacre Colin Thiele’s prose, I can heartily recommend it. Salt Creek is a novel that sits way above the ordinary. And as Lucy Treloar will be one of the speakers at the Historical Novels Society of Australasia Conference in September, I can look forward to hearing all about her writing journey.

 

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