Waratah House

Written by Ann Whitehead
Review by Marina Maxwell

On a ship to Australia in the 1880s, Marina is orphaned after a fever outbreak and is taken into the care of James and Sarah, who are headed for service positions in country west of Sydney. When further tragedies strike, Sarah is convinced Marina is cursed, and her hatred of the girl has repercussions for the inhabitants of Waratah House for years to come.

The owners of the house are secondary figures, and this story is primarily about the servants, with the vile Sarah at its core. Marina and her daughter Emily are both attractive young women, but with an uncanny ability to predict sudden death. Their love lives are fraught with lies and jealousies, often manipulated by Sarah.

In spite of her nastiness, Sarah is a memorable creation. Hints about her grim childhood attempt to justify her behavior, but it’s difficult to find any real sympathy for her. Her foil is the equally well-drawn and assertive cook, Joyce (“Cookie”). Sarah’s children, Esther and David, exhibit as much deviousness as their mother. Most of the other characters, including the leading males, tend to be stereotypes.

After a promising beginning, the narrative becomes repetitive and sluggish in places and, as little action occurs beyond the environs of Waratah House, it acquires a claustrophobic feel. There are some surprises that lift the tone, but the ending is inconclusive, so a sequel could be planned.

History is just a backdrop to this novel, but it should appeal to those who enjoy the drama of dark human relationships.