I discovered Kate Morton a little over a year ago, when I read and reviewed her new book The Secret Keeper for Lip Magazine. I instantly fell in love with the author, and was determined to read her back list. For Christmas last year, I got given The Shifting Fog, and have been yet to read it. So it seems only fitting that I begin my 100 Homegrown Reads Challenge with the book.
I haven’t read much of the book yet, but already I’m captivated. A film maker is making a film about a mysterious suicide which occurred in an old English mansion in 1924. In 1999, 98 year-old Grace Bradley is the only person still living who can shed any light on what occurred that night at Riverton Manor. The film maker contacts Grace to ask if she would review the sets to make sure the details are correct, and Grace’s memory sends her back to 1924.
Morton begins the novel with a scene written as though it is part of the film maker’s movie script, and I must admit, it is quite off-putting to open the first page and be confronted by a movie script. I wanted to be immediately drawn into the story, and Morton’s beautiful prose, and starting with the script removed my interest immediately. But once I found the courage to actually start the novel, I didn’t want to put it down. I am especially eager to find out how the mystery of the suicide is resolved, given the brilliant twist Morton injected into the end of The Secret Keeper.
Morton is another Australian writer who chooses to write stories set in other countries, but her inclusion on the list of favourite home grown reads shows that it is not the locality of a novel which necessarily makes a novel Australian, but the nationality of the author who writes the story. And when the writer is as good as Kate Morton is, why would we claim her books are anything but Australian? Looking forward to all the twists and turns I’ll undoubtedly discover in The Shifting Fog!
Deborah O’Brien’s The Jade Widow caught my attention for two reasons: one, it is set in Australian society in the 1880s, and two, O’Brien’s two protagonists are women. I have read very little, fiction or otherwise, set in Australia in that time period, particularly with a narrative revolving around the role of women at the time.
The Jade Widow is the sequel to Mr Chen’s Emporium, and continues the story of Eliza Miller, who is attempting to forge a career as one of Australia’s first female doctors, and Amy Chen, who is still mourning the death of her husband twelve years after the event, and has big plans for establishing a grand hotel in Millbrooke in country New South Wales.
Although I hadn’t read the prequel, I found it easy to slip into the world of The Jade Widow. O’Brien’s characters are full of life, and her writing sucks the reader into the time period and holds them there as her two strong female protagonists each try to carve a place for themselves in a man’s world. Several prominent figures from Australia’s history make appearances in the book, and O’Brien’s writing wonderfully captures what life was like in ‘the colony’ before federation.
Even so, at times the dialogue in the book feels clumsy, as though O’Brien is trying to offload as much information about the era as possible through her characters’ interactions, and that pulled me out of the story and made me feel like I was reading a history textbook. Despite this, the overall charm of the book is enough to overcome these moments.
The biggest disappointment for me with this book was the ending. It felt very abrupt, and many of the issues discussed in the novel, such as whether a woman can have a career and a family, were left unfinished and undealt with. I can accept that these issues were very new ideas for the era, and that even now women do not have all the answers and are still trying to balance family and career, yet I wished for there to be more resolution in both Eliza and Amy’s narratives, offering more closure to this particular chapter of their lives.
Still, it was refreshing to read a novel about Australian women and their place in Australian society in the 1880s, and O’Brien does a wonderful job of portraying the expectations of women and the obstacles they faced at the time. This novel made me thankful for those women who lived in the years before me, who pioneered the women’s movement and feminism, and made it ordinary, not extraordinary, for women to have careers in whichever field they choose.
Published by Random House, 2013