Beyond the Bay

Written by Rebecca Burns
Review by Janice Ottersberg

Isobel and her husband Brendan left England to make a new life in New Zealand, but after ten years of struggling they have nothing to show for it. It is now the early 1890s, and Isobel’s sister, Esther, arrives with expectations of comfort in a beautiful townhouse, as her sister portrayed in her letters home. The reality is a run-down shack with old newspapers glued to the walls to keep the wind and weather out. The women of the community are bound together by their lives of hardship and poverty. They gather around the water pump each day in the common yard to wash the dishes, do the laundry, and drink tea together. Brendan cannot keep a job, so Isobel takes in mending from the wealthier households. When the landlord, Jack Bellamy, shows up to collect the rent, Esther pays the family’s back rent from money she had inexplicably acquired and brought from England. Jack is a kind, handsome man who becomes a friend in the sisters’ lives.

This is a story of the love, jealousies, and conflicts between two sisters trying to find fulfillment in a restrictive society. Isobel is trapped in an unhappy, childless marriage, and Esther has fled England with her own secrets to escape the judgements and condemnations of that society. She convinces Isobel to reach for a new life in this new country of possibilities. Women are fighting for the right to vote in New Zealand, and they become part of the movement. Rebecca Burns writes with well-crafted, carefully chosen words. She skillfully drops in missing pieces of the story throughout the progression of the narrative. As the puzzle comes together, the full picture is revealed. This is a wonderful read.