Light but enjoyable novel dealing with Australian history
Another new(ish) book, and this time a little lighter than my usual reads. I wanted to try reading some Australian fiction, and the cover combined with the just post-World War I setting of Kim Kelly’s latest novel drew me in. It tells the story of four people involved in the Soldier Settlement Scheme, which offered land for farming to those who had served in the war. Jack Bell, Snow McGlynn, Art Lovelee, and his wife Grace, each experience a slightly different side of the War, and it is clear that Kelly has done considerable research before commencing the novel.
The blurb for the book doesn’t really bode well: the three men ‘find themselves sharing a finger of farmland along the Darling River, and not much else. That is, until Art’s wife Grace, a battle-hardened nurse, gets to work on them all with her no-nonsense wisdom!’. When has a pretty wife with ‘no-nonsense wisdom’ ever resulted in great literature? Thankfully the book itself is better than this suggests, but it stays firmly in the realm of light reading. Grace Lovelee (a frankly ridiculous example of nominative determinism), a British nurse who marries an Australian and moves with him to New South Wales, is the novel’s centre, as she slowly rehabilitates the three men who are each damaged in their own way by the Great War. Like me, Grace is from Wiltshire, but there wasn’t that much engaging with the differences between Australia and England, so this didn’t have much impact on my reading.
The plot is fairly straightforward, as difficulties agricultural and psychological are easily overcome, and cold characters open up as their problems are revealed. There is not a great deal of depth; it has a similar style to some of the fan fiction I used to read as a young teenager. The novel’s faith in the healing power of nature and a little kindness is naive but optimistic – I don’t think it is easy as all that to overcome PTSD. But if you need something to cheerful and easy to read, this wouldn’t be a bad choice.
One aspect that raises less comfortable questions is the character of Jack Bell, an indigenous Australian. Having served with the Light Horse regiments in Palestine and Egypt, he returns home to find that his baby daughter has been taken by the ‘Aborigines Protection Board’ (few organisations can have been so hugely miss-named), and his devastated wife has moved on. Kelly treats his story with respect, and has clearly widely researched the institutional and societal racism indigenous people faced at the time (and which is far from eradicated in modern-day Australia). But there is something quite surface-level about her treatment of it. It is factual, but somehow lacks emotional depth. The controversy surrounding Jeanine Cummings’ American Dirt has raised the issue of who should telling certain stories. I believe that stories of oppression and injustice are always best told by those with real experience of them. It is not fair to profit from the suffering of others by selling stories about them, nor will you be able to tell that story with the necessary honesty and integrity. We should be creating opportunities for people to share their own histories and experiences, rather than trying to speak on their behalf.
In the case of Sunshine it is clear that Jack Bell’s story is well intentioned. Given the lack of acknowledgment of the role of indigenous soldiers in the First World War, it is good that Kelly took the time to do her research, and present a story that fills in some unjustified blanks in the record. It was interesting to learn about the Solider Settlement Scheme, and the lives of indigenous soldiers and their families at the time. I have certainly been inspired to learn more about a period and place I know little about, and to seek out writing by indigenous Australians. Hopefully other readers will be too.
If you need a break from the heavy-hitters, and want something a bit light and more cheerful, Sunshine might be just what you’re looking for.
Do you have any recommendations for Australian novels that I should try? I’m keen to read more, so do please share any ideas you might have in the comments!