The Opal Dragonfly

Written by Julian Leatherdale
Review by Christine Childs

Set in Sydney, Australia in the mid-1800s, The Opal Dragonfly recounts the financial and social descent of a wealthy, privileged family. Described by Leatherdale as a work of fiction with its roots in historical research, his second novel recreates the sights, sounds and social tensions of early colonial Sydney. Whilst firmly set amongst the governing class of gentry, professionals and military personnel, we encounter all types of inhabitants, including the dispossessed indigenous peoples, pardoned convicts and abandoned gold rush “widows” living in poverty.

The main protagonist is Isobel Macleod, the youngest daughter of New South Wales’ Surveyor General, a character loosely based on Sir Thomas Mitchell’s youngest daughter, Blanche. It’s a novel rife with sibling rivalry, old grudges, secrets and deception. Isobel is a strong-willed character with her heart in the right place, but who often exhibits flawed judgment, resulting in disastrous consequences. The novel follows her through childhood to early womanhood and beyond, as she experiences loss and isolation, love and hatred. We ponder whether her circumstances are brought about entirely by her own actions or due to something more sinister and supernatural, her mysterious, opal dragonfly pendant.

The Opal Dragonfly is an ambitious undertaking that presents all of the class bigotry and narrow-mindedness of the era. Its characters and awkward coming-of-age scenes are reminiscent of Austen. That, combined with Dickensian social realism, has resulted in Leatherdale creating a memorable, epic work that is destined to become an Australian literary classic.