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Book Review, Books, Guest Authors, Writers on Location

Writers on Location – Joy Rhoades on the New England Tableland, NSW, Australia

The first Australian Writers on Location post (Clare Atkins on Darwin) proved exceptionally popular back in the summer and I’m delighted to be returning to a very different part of this huge and beautiful country in the company of Joy Rhoades, author of The Woolgrower’s Companion.  It’s a first novel which has achieved critical success, shortlisted in both the 2018 McKitterick Prize for debuts by authors over the age of 40 and the 2018 Historical Writers’ Association Debut Crown award.  Following my recent post on Book Hype (for want of a better word) – and it really isn’t the word in this case – it’s great to be sharing my thoughts on a book which had no trouble meeting my high expectations.  (Review at the end). First, Joy shares her personal experience of the setting:

The Woolgrower’s Companion is the story of one young woman’s fight to save her family’s sheep farm. Set in 1945, on the New England Tableland of New South Wales, this part of Australia had then been settled only a hundred years or so. It must have been beguiling country for the first white settlers, gentle and reminiscent of ‘home’ on the other side of the world.

Almost pretty, the New England Tableland is a long series of rolling hills, lawned with excellent pasture for stock. The blessed creeks (with their reliable water), meander between rocky outcrops of granite that glints in the sun. Welcoming, the settlers might almost have thought, as they trekked slowly north in caravans of drays, cutting timber to make their way. But the granite itself might have been warning of a kind. Formed somewhere in the region of 2 billion years ago, granite is one of the least yielding of rocks.

My grandmother knew the toughness of the land, saw it and lived it. For The Woolgrower’s Companion is based to no small degree, on family stories, handed down over the five generations that were graziers. My grandmother lived almost all of her 102 years on her family’s sheep place on the New England Tableland. It was her stories that inspired me to write. Stories of sheep, of drought, flood, fire, as well as of kindness, and courage.

The Woolgrower’s Companion follows the trials of 23-year old Kate Dowd, raised only to run the homestead. But with her husband away fighting in the war, and her father declining with dementia, Kate must step up. She makes a shocking discovery. Her father has heavily mortgaged his property and the money is missing. The bank is threatening to foreclose, the bank manager convinced that a woman could never run a sheep property.

The Woolgrower’s Companion is set on a mythical version of my grandmother’s farm. We visited her often when I was a child, and for a little girl who lived in a town, there was something transfixing about the sheer size of the place, with its thousands of acres and paddocks that stretched into the distance. I wanted to replicate that feeling, of freedom, of limitless space – of remoteness–in The Woolgrower’s Companion.

The homestead in the book is based very much on the one my grandmother grew up in. Long since gone, it was an odd mix of practicality and prettiness. Now I see it perhaps for what it was, just a few sticks of timber arranged, secured, temporarily, optimistically, onto that ancient earth.

The old homestead was a welcoming place, with long verandas and a trellis burdened with wisteria. It was situated up, out of reach of the rare floods, on an outcrop, with a wonderful expanse of paddocks on three sides, and a glimpse of the creek water hole in the gully below.

The creek is the lifeblood of any sheep place, and keeps all, stock and people, alive for as long as its water holds out, as the wait for rain goes on. Survival is often measured in weeks or months in the bush. So, it is in The Woolgrower’s Companion as Kate battles the drought. For her relief, I gave Kate my grandmother’s love of birds. The dawn chorus on the place was made up of a hundred varieties of bird, singing into the hills, hauling the fog from the creek.

The daily fight to survive is sometimes relieved too by the staggering beauty of the place, from the enormous sky, to the trees clinging to the creek banks.

Kate’s only female company on the place is a 14-year old Aboriginal girl. Daisy is a product of the local Domestic Training Home for Aboriginal Girls. I was very fortunate to be guided by Aboriginal advisers on the cultural aspects of the book, to be sure that I was, as I hoped, approaching it with sensitivity and respect. I learned so much, and as I write the sequel, continue to learn. The five generations my family were graziers might seem like a lot, but for Aboriginal Australians, who have walked the same lands for 50 000 years, it is an eye-blink. I wanted to show those different perspectives of time and history in the book.

Kate has married after a short war-time romance, as much to please her mother (now passed) as anything. But that comes back to haunt her as she sees she can run things, make decisions, cope, without her husband. And her newfound independence is threatened above all by the arrival of two Italian prisoners of war, assigned to the property at the instigation of Kate’s father, in one of his lucid moments. These men will work unguarded to help get the wool clip. But Kate is very afraid for Daisy and for herself. . .

It was one of the joys (!) of my life to write and research The Woolgrower’s Companion. I’m thrilled to say that Penguin has just commissioned the sequel, and, also that I’m considering a film rights offer!

Thanks to Joy for this lovely piece showing the depth of her connection to the setting of her book – and also for the pictures of the homestead and her grandmother, seen in one with two adopted joeys named Matilda and Julia! You can watch the atmospheric book trailer here.

In Brief: My View of The Woolgrower’s Companion

This is not a novel which eases the reader in gently.  I found the hectic first chapter and its many character introductions  overwhelming, but these were the foundations of a vivid and convincing world in which I would soon be fully immersed.  The quality of the writing lifts this story off the page, with voices (and accents) I could hear and unfamiliar landscapes I could visualise.  It’s a book which leaves you with the impression of having seen the film, full of ‘real characters’ – 10 year old orphan Harry is an endearing and unforgettable presence.  Following many of the conventions of historical romance, an aspect which touched me with its tender handling, The Woolgrower’s Companion offers a meticulously researched insight into the realities of farming in a time of crisis.  The events and the narration are at times brutal, shocking and consistently unsanitised for modern sensitivities (this last point sounds obvious, but not all historical fiction is this brave).  The seemingly insurmountable challenges Kate faces are exacerbated by her position as a very young woman operating in a man’s world; she is an empathetic and resourceful protagonist capable of getting the reader onside, but her lack of life experience means the reader frequently has the bigger picture.  A sweeping, moving and romantic story – I look forward to the sequel and the film!

 *POSTSCRIPT*

There will be no post next week, partly because it’s half term but mostly because I really need to put in the hours on my novel for the rest of this month.  In the last week of October, the one and only Ben Blackman will standing in for me in a long awaited (as in, he’s been nagging me for years) return to the Sofa to talk about a book it took him *nine months* to read.

 

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About Isabel Costello

Novelist and short story writer based in London. Debut novel PARIS MON AMOUR now out in digital and audio, paperback on 22 May 2017. Host of the Literary Sofa blog.

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