2012 REVIEWS: AUSTRALIAN WOMEN WRITERS #5

MORGAN’S LAW
Author: Karly Lane
Arena RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

“It tends to shock children to realise their mothers are also women, even though they’ve given up their name to become plain old Mum.” (Carmel Morgan in Morgan’s Law).

As I get older I am learning more about my mother as a woman, a girl, a dreamer, a sister and a daughter, rather than just “Mum” (or Sausage, as she is affectionately known). A similar discovery is what surprises London-based career woman Sarah Murphy when she makes a quick trip to Negellan, a small farming community in Queensland to scatter her beloved Gran’s ashes.

For Sarah, a break from her London life is just what she needs, even if Negellan is an unlikely place for a high-flying executive to unwind. She is visiting the town simply to follow through on her grandmother’s last, albeit mysterious, wish – to have her ashes scattered under the Wishing Tree. What she doesn’t count on is that her actions will cause trouble in more ways than one.

It doesn’t take long for her enquiries about her grandmother to cause disquiet in the town, particularly within the powerful Morgan family. Nor does it take long for an attraction to develop between Sarah and local farmer, Adam. And strangely, the girl from the city soon finds herself drawn to the battling community that for some reason is connected to her grandmother. Sarah is soon faced with a number of choices, but will she make the right ones?

There’s more than meets the eye in Morgan’s Law. Author Karly Lane skilfully interweaves a young woman’s hopes and dreams, the search for family roots and self-discovery with romance and mystery in an embattled rural setting. The setting adds depth because it allows issues facing such communities to be given a voice – suicide, depression, hardship are all under the surface, but very real. The community becomes more than just a place or a setting; it is alive and evolving, adding to the story’s believability.

On the surface this appears to be a story about a young woman who is prompted to ask herself a big question in life: What do I want out of life? The journey to self-awareness was not one Sarah intended to make, but she finds herself along for the ride nonetheless. I liked Sarah. She’s the right mix of feisty and kind, and I wanted everything to work out for her. She has been affected by her touchy relationship with her mother, but as Sarah finds out more about her grandmother, the reader is left with a sense that Sarah’s discoveries will benefit this relationship.

On another level, Morgan’s Law is not just about Sarah’s hopes and dreams, but those of her gran, and to a lesser extent, other minor characters such as Tash and Ruth. Not to mention the hopes of an entire community which, rapidly fading, are soon buoyed by new ideas.

As a love interest for Sarah, Adam’s quiet strength hit the spot and I enjoyed vicariously observing their growing romance. Their story sweetly overlaps with a long-ago romance, effectively bringing closure to the past. Initially Sarah is unwilling to label the situation as more than ‘lust’, but the reader knows that it’s a front; with everything she thought she knew about her gran suddenly changing, as well as unwanted questions intruding her thoughts about her life’s direction, she needs some way to maintain control.

Once I started reading, I found Morgan’s Law hard to set aside. Much more than a rural romance, the combination of compelling plot, suspense and great writing held my interest through to the end; my only gripe was with the final chapter, which seemed a bit rushed and not entirely realistic in the way it played out. That said, and without wanting to spoil things, the plot outcome was all good, so this is forgivable; all’s well that ends well. This was my first Lane novel and it won’t be my last.

Morgan’s Law is available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


MR CHEN’S EMPORIUM
Author: Deborah O’Brien
Bantam RRP $29.95
Review: Monique Mulligan

Mr Chen's EmporiumRich in romance and history, Mr Chen’s Emporium is the debut novel from Deborah O’Brien and tells the stories of two women separated by time but linked by circumstance. An enjoyable and well-researched read, the novel asks age-old questions – can love survive in the face of prejudice and intolerance? Would you defy your family to be with the man you love? Is it possible to find happiness after the tragic loss of your soul mate?

It’s 1872 and 17-year-old Amy Duncan has reluctantly left Sydney to join her family in the Gold Rush town of Millbrooke. Her mother is experiencing complications in pregnancy and her strict clergyman father wants Amy to help out. Unlike her mother, Amy is not as accepting of the limitations placed upon her by her religious father and patriarchal society; while she stops short of defiance, she finds ways to get around some of his more irrational rules – such as shopping in Mr Chen’s Emporium. Owned by Charles Chen, the adopted Chinese-born son of the highly-regarded Miller family, the store is enigmatic, exotic and intriguing, just like its owner; Amy is enchanted. Upon realising that Mr Chen shares her feelings, she resolves to risk all for love, even if it means being a social outcast. Will their romance survive pride, prejudice, racial intolerance and the sheer force of societal expectations?

Fast forward to present day Millbrook, where, against the better judgement of her friends, recently widowed Angie Wallace has relocated and rented the Old Manse. Still reeling from the loss of her husband, Angie busies herself in projects – renovating the house and teaching art. When her landlord produces an antique trunk containing Amy’s keepsakes, Angie takes on another project – discovering more about Amy and her mysterious past. It’s no easy task, but will this project heal her broken heart, or will it just bury her grief deeper?

The two stories are interwoven well, with multiple, multi-layered parallels. Millbrooke of the 1870s is a hotbed of tension, typical of many Gold Rush towns, characterised by strained relationships between the Chinese migrants and the white Australians. Present-day Millbrooke is experiencing tension of another kind: a mining company has taken an interest in the area and its tourist attraction proposal has attracted opposition from the more cynical townsfolk. In both cases, elements of pride and prejudice (a nice literary reference to the Austen classic) are at play. Both women are called to re-examine some of their beliefs through varying circumstances – Amy, in particular, is challenged by notions that women can be doctors. Despite her feisty nature, she is still naive enough to think that this is stretching possibilities too far. Both women are also attracted to men who are somewhat of an enigma (another literary reference, this time to Jane Eyre, which is alluded to a number of times in the novel).

There are also some strong contrasts between the two stories, which adds depth to the overall novel. Amy is a teenager, full of romantic ideals nurtured by her love of books; Angie is in her fifties and has experienced her great love and has no interest in romance. Amy is experiencing a defining moment – her coming of age; Angie is experiencing a move into a later stage of life and the acceptance of who she is as a person, without her husband to define her. Both women are attracted to the “wrong” men (according to society) and experience differing forms of judgement because of this.

I really liked Amy’s story and I wish that this had been explored further. It seemed a little rushed or glossed over to bring the story to a conclusion. On the other hand, Angie has difficulty finding information about Amy – perhaps the scanty information is a metaphorical reference to the difficulties of tracing historical information at times. That Amy ultimately stayed in Millbrooke despite her choices demonstrates the bravery that was hinted at in earlier chapters. Angie’s development was a little more fuzzy – her decision to have an affair with a married man did not ring true with me at all. It went against the character I thought she was in the beginning. If he had been unmarried, I would have understood … was this a deliberate ploy, a bit of emotional manipulation to make readers feel judgement against Angie that would make them identify with Amy’s dilemma?

From a descriptive viewpoint, I enjoyed the depictions of life Millbrooke then and now – especially during the Gold Rush – and the inclusion of the duck mole or platypus was intriguing. Is it just a whimsical inclusion or is there a little more to it? Is the platypus representing the enigma that is humanity?

Backed by a strong supporting cast – likeable and not-so-likeable – and sub-themes including racism, feminism and capitalism (yes, all those “isms”) Mr Chen’s Emporium is a good read that will appeal to lovers of romantic and historical fiction. It’s not heavy reading – read into it what you will – but it’s a jolly good story. I’m keen to read more by Deborah O’Brien.

Available from good bookstores and Random House Australia. This copy was courtesy of Random House.


MOTHERS’ GROUP, THE
Author: Fiona Higgins
Allen & Unwin RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

The Mother's GroupWHEN Bear was born, I didn’t  join a mothers’ group. I remember it was encouraged, but the lack of car meant I couldn’t commit to anything regular. Once, not longer after the birth, I met with a mum from my pre-birth class. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember the shared camaraderie we felt when a lady in the cafe took out her purse, dropped a tampon and kicked it towards us. What the? I mean, we clearly had newborns in our arms, so it could hardly be ours. We (childishly) kicked it back and dissolved in floods of laughter over milkshakes.

When Monkey was born, I pushed a double stroller several kilometres away to a playgroup. I had just moved interstate and it was the first time I had really bonded with other mothers. I do remember enjoying it for the most part, although the mother I became closest to shared my frustration that the only conversation seemed to be about tantrums, poos, vomiting and slack husbands. I moved interstate again when Monkey was nine months, found another playgroup and started again. There I met another like-minded friend, who is still my friend today, and although her son was older, the friendship and support we shared was priceless. So were the laughs!

My sons are teenagers now, so my first thoughts when I received a copy of The Mothers’ Group was that it was bound to bring back a lot of memories:  the first smile, the first word, the first solid food…the first tantrum… Yes, this book took me on that trip down memory lane. How I remember the time Bear vomited through his nose, Monkey’s night terrors, Bear’s reluctance to sleep through the night, Monkey’s anger when he crawled backwards instead of forwards. And how I remember the confusion I felt at times, the helplessness when I simply didn’t know what to do – because, as all “experienced” parents know, there are few absolutes when it comes to bringing up a little person.

The Mothers’ Group piqued my interest when it crossed my desk, and held it to the end. It’s a terrifically readable novel that engages the reader through the eyes of six very different women. The plot focuses on a mothers’ group, beginning with the women tiptoeing towards friendship, despite their different experiences, backgrounds and parenting styles. Over the first year of their babies’ lives, they support each other through the challenges of motherhood and shifting relationships with their partners. But these bonds are tested when tragedy strikes.

Author Fiona Higgins has delivered a compelling insight to the modern family with all its complications and the increasing lack of simplicity. Honest and perceptive, The Mothers’ Group is the kind of book that will make the reader forget that dinner needs to be cooked. It’s hard to put down because it’s just so real. All of the characters are flawed, but trying hard to be the parents – and women – they want to be (or think they should be). All of them have insecurities and doubts, but each of them has something to offer the other women in the group, even if at first it doesn’t appear to be the case. I almost felt part of the group, getting to know them and sharing their inner thoughts, feeling their pain, frustration and confusion.

For mothers of all ages, all experience – read this. I’m sure you will get something out of it, whether it’s reassurance or remembrance. It’s a book I will read again and I’m looking forward to reading more from Higgins.

Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin.  This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin Australia.


LUCINDA’S WHIRLWIND
Author: Louise Limerick
Pan Macmillan RRP $24.99
Review: Monique Mulligan

PictureAfter nine years, award-winning author Lousie Limerick (Dying for Cake) has delivered her much-anticipated second novel, Lucinda’s Whirlwind. The title aptly (mostly) sums up a week or so in the life of Lucinda, whose normally rigid, almost anti-social life, is thrown into a whirling frenzy when her sister takes off to America; the cover image evokes movement and change, hinting at what is contained within.

Lucinda works in a museum and has never really been good at dealing with people. At 43, she prefers a life she can control, one that follows an order – her order – and has mastered the art of containing herself. When she receives a frantic call from Jayne’s husband Brian asking her to pick up their children because he is stranded in a remote Aboriginal community, and Jayne is winging her way to America, Lucinda sees the request as a short-term inconvenience: ‘It was some sort of communication problem, obviously’.  She sets about the task with her usual distant efficiency, but the clamouring needs of her young charges, a teenage couch surfer and an unexpected new ‘best friend’ mean she is soon called upon to delve deeper into herself and offer more.

As Lucinda opens herself to new possibilities, so to does Jayne, who is, for the first time since she can remember, ‘going to an interesting and exciting place all by herself’. She wonders if she is having a midlife crisis because ‘this was certainly unusual behaviour for her’. Her husband Brian is having the same thoughts, except his are tinged by worry – is Jayne, as Lucinda tactlessly suggests, planning to leave him?

Told through the perspectives of Lucinda, Jayne and Brian, the novel is as much about Jayne and Brian’s individual and joint whirlwinds as it is about Lucinda’s. It raises some interesting questions that many women will relate to: why is it that assertive and honest women are still labelled bitchy? How do women balance their own needs with those of their families? Why do women try to please others at the expense of themselves? Certainly these questions all strikes a chord with me. Finding balance and allowing space just for me is a common battle. There is an element of validation in this novel – an affirmation that it’s OK for women to seek out self-fulfilment.

From a characterisation angle, I found it hard at first to relate to Lucinda. She was a little too strident and disconnected for me; I wouldn’t call her bitchy because she was assertive, but I would say her emotional intelligence was at the lower end of normal. It made it hard for me to want to keep reading at first because I could not connect with her; I almost put the book away. Jayne, on the other hand, was more easy for me to like. I identified with her questions about her purpose – was there more to her life than just being born and reproducing? ‘Or was there supposed to be something else that she was supposed to be doing? And if that was the case, then what was it?’  I did question my initial reaction to Lucinda – was I judging her for simply being too honest, for choosing to please herself first? I think what I needed to see in her was balance and as she softened and this was achieved, I found I could relate to her more. Her emotional development was a pleasing aspect of the novel.

Running through the novel is an allusion to The Wizard of Oz. A ‘whirlwind’ in the form of change whisks Lucinda into another ‘reality’ (her sister’s), an internal ‘tornado’ whisks Jayne and her newly-bought, fanciful red shoes to America in search of something elusive, and a physical cyclone keeps Brian stranded, giving him plenty of time to reassess his marriage. Jayne and her red shoes soon realise ‘There’s no place like home’; for all three, they just need to look within rather than ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ for fulfilment.

Although a little slow to hit its stride, I found that I enjoyed Lucinda’s Limerick more as I read, as the characters’ matured and their motivations were revealed. Limerick has said that she would like women to ‘think about their own lives and relationships after reading my work’; this book certainly challenges women to do just that.

Available from good bookstores or Pan Macmillan. This copy was courtesy of Pan Macmillan.