REVIEW: SILVER CLOUDS BY FLEUR MCDONALD

SILVER CLOUDS

Author: Fleur Mcdonald 
Allen & Unwin RRP $17.99
Review: Monique Mulligan 

Silver CloudsThe weather was unseasonably cool as we left Adelaide to drive across the vast Nullarbor Plain, part of a cross-country move from Sydney to Perth in 2002. As I looked out the window, I recall being unable to imagine anyone living there – so quiet, so sparse, so flat, did it seem to my road-weary eyes. Now, thanks to Fleur McDonald’s latest rural novel, Silver Clouds, I have more of an idea. One of the strengths of this novel is the sense of place – McDonald’s vivid descriptions picked me up from the Perth suburbs and placed me squarely in Danjar Plains, the station where much of the story is set. Away from the endless road stretching through the desert is an isolated community unlike anything in the city or even small towns of Australia.

Silver Clouds begins in London, where marketing executive Tessa Mathison is living the party life … and living it hard. In this thriving metropolis, she can barely remember life at Danjar Plains, her family’s remote sheep and cattle station, and that’s the way she wants it right now. However, the party life has finally caught up with her. An indiscreet, boozy night has cost her a decent job, as well as her reputation. And the guilt she feels when she wakes in a stranger’s bedroom, drunk and remorseful, is nothing compared to the shame she feels when she finds out her beloved Aunty Spider has died; she’s barely made an effort to keep in touch since she left Australia. Her life a mess, Tessa packs her bags to attend the funeral, vowing that she’ll fix everything when she gets back,

Going back home is difficult for Tessa for more than one reason; some bad memories have been left behind and Tessa knows they will resurface. She plans to leave once the funeral is over, but an unusual request makes it impossible to leave. And when handsome and charming Brendan McKenzie introduces himself, staying doesn’t seem like such a bad thing after all. While indulging in this flirtation, Tessa gets down to the task of sorting through her aunt’s belongings, uncovering long-buried secrets that go right to the heart of her family. As she cleans her aunt’s house, Tessa metaphorically cleans her own ‘house’, putting the past to rest and discovering an unexpectedly bright future – the silver lining on the cloud.

Silver Clouds is a light, quick and enjoyable read with underlying messages of hope, healing and redemption. I really like how Fleur gives a voice to the country, highlighting issues facing those who make a living from the land such as stock control and stealing, diversifying and creating a sense of community despite vast distances and schooling. Two of the characters are dealing with fertility problems, another is gearing up to send his daughter to boarding school, and another is financially supporting a disabled relative who has to live in the city. Tessa is veering dangerously close to alcoholism – I can only imagine the lack of support there would be in the outback for people who want help for that, and other, addictions. Those of us who live in urban areas have no idea what it’s like in remote Australia and books like Silver Clouds are instrumental in raising awareness of the big issues remote communities face. And then there are the smaller issues such as obtaining food and clothing – it’s not just a matter of popping down to the shop.

If setting is one of the strengths of this novel, characterisation is not far behind. McDonald brings together a cast representative of a small community –hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types, a smattering of disreputable types, a loner who’s been around forever … I particularly liked Harrison, Paul, Peggy and Ryan … and I loved ‘meeting’ Aunty Spider through her letters and diaries. She was quite a character, probably my favourite. Tessa is not an easy character to like at the start; her selfish, promiscuous and self-destructive behaviour led some reviewers to cite a lack of connection with her; however, it is quickly clear that much of her self-destructive behaviour stems from past hurts. She hides her problems under alcohol and other forms of self-medication. It’s sad, because her family appears very supportive throughout the novel. But let’s be realistic – we all know someone like Tessa, so rather than focusing on her flaws, I looked forward to her development. Fortunately, Tessa develops well over the course of the novel, shedding her drinking problem and revealing a more thoughtful side. One of the big turning points was looking after her neighbour’s pre-teen daughter, Cally, for a few days; suddenly Tessa was responsible for someone else’s well-being.

Like a couple of other reviewers, I wasn’t quite convinced about the chemistry between Tessa and Harrison, nor the ease at which Tessa was able to withdraw from alcohol. It would have been interesting to see this aspect developed further, highlighting how difficult it would be in reality to overcome an addiction. I did, however, like the nervous tension created when Cally is made aware of her father’s relationship with Tessa – that was realistic.

I liked Silver Clouds. It was, on the whole, a realistic depiction of Australian rural lifestyles. What stood out? The setting and the glimpse into the history of the cameleers and traders in the outback – I’ve never heard any of that before and I found it fascinating.

Here’s the trailer:

Silver Clouds is available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin. This copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.

Bookish treat: Once, when I visited a big NSW sheep farm as a child, the farm kids treated me, a city girl, to damper on a stick. I thought they were so cool, cooking over a fire all by themselves! We had butter and honey … and I’ll have some of that, please.