The Paperbark Shoe
Take an albino piano-playing prodigy who has been committed to a mental hospital by her evil stepfather, marry her to a short, ugly, and generally not very nice rural Australian farmer with homosexual tendencies, then throw in a couple of Italian POWs to serve as farmhands, and what do you get? A tale of love, longing, and loss that’s also funny, heartrending, and insightful.
Our increasingly unreliable narrator is Gin Toad (Toad being her husband’s apt moniker), who knows her options for fitting in anywhere in 1940s Australia are slim; she marries Toad because he was her ticket out of the madhouse, and though they don’t love each other, they get along well enough with each other and their community. They’re seen as outliers, with strange habits – she plays the piano and is disliked by her children, he has a large collection of women’s corsets and reads the dictionary aloud in the outhouse.
The arrival of Antonio and John, Italian POWs, disrupts the dynamic, and also provides the historical context for the novel. During World War II, Australia housed over 18,000 Italian prisoners; when Italy surrendered to the Allies in 1943, these men were no longer formally considered enemies, but they couldn’t be sent home. Many of them were thus sent to work on farms to help ease the national labor shortage.
The relationships between the not-quite prisoners and the farming families weren’t always based on trust and openness, and Antonio and John’s dealings with Gin and Toad are further troubled by the fact that all four of them are social outcasts. How they try to fit in and how rising emotions and dreams of better lives are sabotaged from within and without make for an engrossing tale.