Author: Jennifer Scoullar
Michael Joseph RRP $29.99
Review: Monique Mulligan
One of the aspects of rural fiction I love the most is the deep appreciation of the land that shines through much of the writing in this genre. Currawong Creek, the latest of Jennifer Scoullar’s novels and the first I’ve read, is an excellent example of a book in which the beauty of Australia’s landscape serves as a magnificent backdrop for a story about love, family, choices, self-discovery and ‘coming home’.
It’s funny how lives can change in the blink of an eye … whether by chance, fate or grand design. Clare Mitchell, a Brisbane lawyer who lives in an upmarket, minimalist flat and prefers order over chaos, spends her days helping other people get their lives in order without getting involved on any more than a professional basis. But when a little boy is left in her office and looks set to be sent to short-term emergency housing pending a foster care placement, Clare can’t ignore his plight. Against the advice of her colleagues, she offers to become Jack’s temporary guardian until his mother is located; it doesn’t take long for Clare to realise that the structured and orderly foundations of her life are also going to be temporarily misplaced.
Jack has a number of behavioural problems, ranging from impulsive behaviour to tantrums and banging his head on the wall. This, combined with the fact that Jack rarely speaks, has led to assessments of autism from a number of professionals. Clare is not convinced that Jack is autistic – for starters, she has heard him speak – but appreciates that he is troubled. She’s not really sure where to start, but when it becomes clear that her place is no place for a young child needing extra attention (as well as a German Shepherd dog she has also inherited), she seeks refuge at her grandfather’s property several hours away in the Bunya Mountains. Due to a family estrangement, it’s been years since she’s been there, but Clare remembers Currawong Creek as a place that always made her feel good. Perhaps it will do Jack some good too.
A lot has changed since Clare last visited Currawong Creek. Life still moves at a slower pace and the land has retained its magical hold on Clare, but Clare’s grandmother has died and her grandfather has aged considerably. The biggest difference is the looming threat of the Pyramid Mining Company, which has the entire community up in arms, including her grandfather. As Jack thrives in the rural environment, Clare finds herself caught up in the fight to block the mining company’s endeavours, with the help of an unexpected ally and a new romantic interest, the local vet. Distracted by her attraction to Tom and her desire to save Currawong Creek, Clare is caught by surprise when Jack’s mother announces that she wants him back.
From the moment I started this book, I was captive to Scoullar’s storytelling abilities. With Clare’s story, she highlights her belief that, “I think every one of us, has something important, deep down inside, that we (were) always meant to do”. As Clare discovers, what she is doing when the book opens may not be what she is meant to do. The ‘coming home’ theme is as much about Clare going back to her roots as it is ‘coming home’ to herself. Currawong Creek tackles a number of issues, ranging from foster care (here Scoullar draws on her own experiences as a foster carer) and child welfare, environmental pollution and abuse, corporate cover-ups and threats to rural communities, and more, resulting in a topical and thought-provoking read. There was a lot going on, but I think Scoullar covered everything well. Life can be complicated and the different sub-plots highlighted the tendency that life has to teach us just when we think we have it all worked out. However, while romance was an important aspect, it was not the primary driver of the book, so I would hesitate to call this a rural romance; the emotional development between Clare and Tom was minimal and even their conflict late in the piece was only part of the tale. Additionally, the love scenes were downplayed, but this did not affect my belief in the chemistry the two had (I didn’t need the details to be convinced).
As I read Currawong Creek, I found myself identifying with Clare’s actions, particularly when it came to Jack’s wellbeing. In reality, Clare and I are very different people – at least we were at the outset. What we do have in common is a desire to help people (especially children) and a difficulty to remain detached even when it’s best not to get involved other than professionally. I know I can’t help everyone, and Clare knows this too, but I completely got her need to help Jack, and later, her lioness protectiveness when she felt his wellbeing was under threat. I got her reaction to the news that Taylor wanted her son back – the instinctual desire to close ranks. In my way, I’ve been there. As such, I found Clare an authentic and well-drawn character, who, learnt a lot about herself over the course of the novel. This really was Clare’s story, her ‘coming home’, so some of the other characters were less developed, such as Tom – there was a glimpse of his backstory behind the patient, gentle, animal-loving facade, when he responded to the news that Taylor wanted Jack, but that’s all it really was. Taylor, however, was a secondary character who developed well; initially, it was easy to dislike her, but despite her youth and immaturity, she made positive steps by the end of the novel.
Characterisation wasn’t the only way I related strongly to Currawong Creek. It’s an emotive read and my reading experience included sympathy (when Jack trashes a lounge and crashes a party … as a parent, I’ve been there), laughter, frustration, tears (there was one heart-twisting moment surprised and saddened me), happiness and satisfaction … in a mixed-up sort of order, just in case you think that’s a timeline. I really enjoyed this novel and I’m looking foward to more from Scoullar – she’s certainly a writer to watch in the great pool of talent we have in Australia.
Available from good bookstores and Penguin Books Australia. This copy was courtesy of Penguin Books Australia.
Bookish treat: Something tells me pumpkin scones from a Country Women’s Association bake sale would go down well about now.