The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of [email protected] – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*
In her own words, Hester Finch has ‘been fortunate in three things, none of which I deserved’: firstly, her parents believed daughters to be worthy of education, a rarity in nineteenth century Australia; second, she is the favourite of her wealthy grandmother, who becomes her benefactor; and third, her family, though poor, had sufficient money to ‘save us from the worst that poverty could inflict.’ It is the strength, assurance and tenor of Hester’s voice that elevates this superbly written and atmospheric debut novel above others, and earned its author, Lucy Treloar, a clutch of awards in her homeland.
Salt Creek is an epic tale about the clash of European settlers and indigenous people in colonial Australia, inspired in part by the author’s own forbears. It is also an intensely moving portrait of love fettered by social norms and ideals. In 1855, fifteen year-old Hester’s family makes the arduous journey from Adelaide to Salt Creek in the Coorong, a long, narrow salt lagoon which slices along the country’s southeast coast. It is a wild, desolate place of dry grasses, low shrubs, sand hills, ‘contorted trees and modest folds of land.’ Only a handful of Europeans dare to settle there; they rock along uneasily beside the aboriginal community, who regard incomers with suspicion.
For Hester’s family, the Coorong is a last resort: after a series of failed business ventures, Hester’s father has staked everything on a small farmholding there, determined to find prosperity and peace. He is both fiercely devout and seemingly emancipated, determined to bring ‘civilization and reverence for God to the poor wretches that live on this land.’ As proof of this, the family takes in a young aboriginal boy, Tully, raising and educating him alongside their own children.
But unlike Tully’s people, they prove unable to live in harmony with the environment. Their presence poisons the land, and over time the land takes its revenge. Danger abounds, as does misfortune, and the livestock fails to thrive. ‘Life is so much absence and emptiness and vivid stretches and disconnected fragments,’ Hester later recounts. But it is not the land that ultimately proves their undoing. The family’s woes are compounded by their father’s pride, intransigence and hypocrisy. Eventually the cracks between his words and deeds widen, and they fall victim to both his false virtues and unshakeable beliefs.
Still, many years later, Hester yearns for Salt Creek: for it’s peculiar quality of light, for the sights, sounds and scents of her youth. The narrative moves back and forth between Chichester in the present, where Hester eventually settles, and the Coorong of her childhood, but is largely focused on the latter. ‘Some things collapse slow, and cannot always be rebuilt,’ Hester says of her memories. ‘And even if a thing can be remade it will never be as it was.’
As a young woman, Hester is wise and principled beyond her years, and fiercely independent. Having watched her mother sacrifice everything to her husband’s dreams, Hester is determined not to bond herself to anyone or anything, even the young artist she falls in love with. She is a strikingly feminist heroine whose consciousness, though deftly rendered in period prose, feels decidedly modern – and Salt Creek is historical fiction at its best, ferrying us to distant shores that seem curiously relevant to our own.
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