In the 1870s, Hester Finch lives a comfortable life in her ancestral family home near Chichester in England, but she is beset by memories and nostalgia for her youth spent in a wild, vast and remote part of South Australia called the Coorong, where the Murray River meets the sea.
In a ramshackle house built of driftwood and spars from shipwrecks, Hester’s weary mother yearns for her own secure English life, which she gave up to become the wife of a man whose fecklessness means the family is always debt-ridden, and they must start yet again raising cattle on marginal land miles from anywhere. They soon interact with a local tribe of Aborigines that includes the fairer skinned Tully, whose father was either a whaler or sealer, and he joins Hester and her siblings in their home schooling. Like the shifting shoals and sands that surround them, this isolated family is alternately thrown together and then thrust apart by events beyond their control or simply their increasingly fractured personalities.
The 19th-century manners, dialogue and thought processes are thoroughly convincing. The author has a delicate touch and doesn’t resort to intimate description where it isn’t necessary. Mr Finch is a complex, deeply religious individual whose behaviour wavers between the honourable and the utterly reprehensible. As eldest daughter, Hester is duty-bound but longs to escape and follow her own path. Her flighty sister, Addie, pays a bitter price for her honesty and affections. Sensitive and artistic Fred struggles with his stubborn and boorish elder brothers. Tully has to try and negotiate the cruel ambivalence of the white man’s religion and society.
This is another brilliant and absorbing addition to the recent crop of exceptionally fine historical novels exploring the Australian pioneer experience and is very highly recommended.