Jarulan by the River

Written by Lily Woodhouse
Review by Marina Maxwell

Matthew Fenchurch owns Jarulan, a mansion in the north of New South Wales. His wife, Min, has died, and his elder son, Llew, has been killed on the Western Front. His dissolute younger son, Eddie, was sent as a remittance man to New Zealand. Vulnerable and grief-stricken, Matthew falls for the wiles of sixteen-year-old servant Evie Tyrell, but when Lorna and Jean, Matthew’s daughters, arrive to stay, it is Lorna’s German maid, Rufina, also still in her teens, who manages to lure Matthew away from Evie with dramatic consequences.

Twenty years later, Rufina travels to New Zealand, where Eddie has lived a Bohemian lifestyle among the Maori, and she asks his son Irving to return to work on Jarulan. After she tells him he will inherit the property, but only if certain demands are met, Irving is faced with a difficult choice.

This is both an intriguing novel and a frustrating one. Certain aspects are written about in depth while others seem to be deliberately avoided. Several important life-changing events are alluded to but not always clarified, leaving one to guess what might have happened. Added to this is the bewildering inclusion of ghosts without sufficient explanation as to who they were, plus other loose threads. Also, the use of Maori words without translation is irritating to the uninitiated.

In spite of his failings, Irving is one of the more appealing characters, and the awkward illegitimate Helena deserves sympathy, but Rufina is unlikeable due to her callous nature, including a fondness for killing birds. Even if eventually she does display hope of redemption, it all comes too late to be convincing, let alone for her to warm the reader’s heart. One of those novels you want to like but just leaves you with the wanting.