Our Eva by Anna Jacobs

Our Eva JacobsThis saga has been sitting on my To Be Read pile for ages. I picked it up because I’m determined to read more historical fiction, stories about our ancestors and nation-building, having been inspired by tales told to me by my 93-year-old aunt who is writing her memoirs. How do authors bring the past alive? How do they incorporate research without swamping the reader with unnecessary detail? These are the questions on my mind when I read.

Our Eva by Anna Jacobs was first published in 2002, Book 3 in the Kershaw Sisters series, which includes Our Lizzie, Our Polly and Our Mary Ann. The family hails from Lancashire, where Jacobs herself comes from, although when she wrote Our Eva she was living in Mandurah in Western Australia. When I mentioned to Anna on Facebook that I was finally reading one of her novels, she quipped, “Only seventy-four more to go.” She celebrated her 75th publication in May of this year! Surely one of Australia’s most prolific authors – if she counts as Australian. Some of her books do include an Australian setting, I’ve discovered. Coincidently, when I asked a local librarian the other day to help me find any fiction which deals with bounty migrants from England to Australia in the 1840s, one of the strands of my own family background, she recommended Jacobs’ book, The Group Settler’s Wife. I looks like I might have to go on a Jacobs reading binge. It won’t be a hardship.

Our Eva has all the hallmarks of a rattling good yarn, as my elderly aunt might put it. I remember hearing Jacobs speak at a writers conference years ago, giving advice about plotting: “Put your heroine up a tree and throw rocks at her.” Our Eva exemplifies that in every respect. Eva Kershaw is the less-attractive sister among the Kershaw girls, happy to live a quiet life with her guardian Alice at the end of the Great War, with the expectation that she will eventually inherit Alice’s estate and be well-provided for. When Alice is dying, the unexpected arrival back from the war of her estranged and possibly ne’er-do-well nephew Gus puts an idea into her head. Instead of leaving her estate to her unmarried ward unencumbered, she changes her will. You can guess at some of the mayhem that ensues when she dies and Eva discovers her plan.

With a spin on the marriage-of-convenience trope and insights into village life in Lancashire in the 1920s, Our Eva romps over 500 pages. The prose is simple, the characterisation more than two-dimensional, the twists enough to keep the reader turning the pages.

I’m looking forward to my next Anna Jacobs yarn.

~

Author: Anna Jacobs
Title: Our Eva
Publisher: Coronet, Hodder & Stoughton, 2002
ISBN: 0340821329

I’m submitting this book as part of my Australian Women Writers Challenge 2016 – even though I’m not sure it qualifies. What do you think?

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That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson – a timely read

Devil's Madness WilsonWow! What a timely read.

The structure of That Devil’s Madness by Dominique Wilson is almost a double helix, seeming parallel narratives of France and Algeria from the late 19th century onwards, and Australia and Algeria in the 1960s. It follows the fates of four generations of French-Algerian-Australian immigrants and Algerian Berbers, narratives which come together in a thriller-like denouement.

The main point of view character is a novice photo-journalist, Nicolette de Dercou, who as a child immigrated to Australia from Algeria with her mother and grandfather, and who returns there to re-connect with childhood friends and cover the news of the president’s imminent death. Nicolette gets caught up in turbulent events as Berbers fight for liberation from the oppression they have suffered since Algeria’s independence from France after World War Two, a historical struggle illuminated by the other narrative which follows Nicolette’s great-grandfather from France to Algeria and her grandfather from Algeria to Australia.

This story interests me on numerous levels. It illuminates the complexity of post-colonialism and Christian-Muslim relations in North Africa; it gives a historical context for present-day political unrest, dissatisfaction with injustice and the root causes of terrorism; and it acts as a reminder for Australian readers of the tentativeness of our claims to sovereignty over Indigenous lands, and the historical and cultural blindness that attends our attitudes to “boat people”.

The novel also highlights the technical difficulty of wielding two disparate narratives. The risk is that the reader might temporarily lose interest at the point of changeover – not for lack of engagement, but because of their investment with the narrative thread already underway. Wilson manages to hold the reader’s attention in both stories until they come together in a powerful ending: no mean feat!

~

This is my first review for the 2016 Australian Women Writers and Aussie Author Challenge. A review copy was kindly supplied to me by the publisher.

Author: Dominique Wilson
Title: That Devil’s Madness
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Date: February 2016
ISBN: 978-1-921924-98-9

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

Anchoress CadwalladerIf The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader isn’t already on your radar, it should be.

Told in exquisite prose, it’s ostensibly the story of Sarah, a medieval nun who, at the age of 17, locks herself away from the world in a tomb-like room to pray; but it’s much more than that.

It’s a tale of grief as Sarah comes to terms with the loss of both her mother and sister in childbirth. It’s a narrative of gender politics, as she negotiates her weekly interaction with her father confessor, Ranaulf; fends off the unwanted advances of the local feudal lord, Sir Thomas; and bears witness to the scars inflicted on village women who have little power in a patriarchal, church-dominated world. It’s also a story about art and its possibility of liberation and redemption, whether it’s the art of the illuminated manuscripts that Ranaulf works on, or the art of living, of attuning to the least sensory inputs, the sounds, smells and glimpses of Sarah’s rural medieval world.

This is the standout achievement of this book, for me: the novel, while beginning as a tale of deprivation and renunciation, ends up celebrating the very embodied world Sarah was determined to reject.

…I could no longer resist the demands made by my senses. I’d had no idea that sounds and smells could separate themselves; as if unravelling a piece of cloth, day by day, thread by thread, I began to recognise them. This is mill wheel, this is cartwheels, this is dragging a sack, this is throwing a bucket of water, this is digging, scything, ploughing, and even, sometimes, whispered seed scatter. (120-21)

The Anchoress has already been extensively reviewed for the Australian Women Writers challenge, making it, I’d hazard, one of the challenge’s most popular books so far for 2015. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a front-runner for this year’s Stella Prize.

~

This review forms part of my contribution to the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the Aussie Author Challenge 2015. You can find other participants’ reviews via these links:

Author: Robyn Cadwallader
Title: The Anchoress
Publisher: Fourth Estate (an imprint of HarperCollins)
Year: 2015
ISBN: 978 0 7322 9921 7

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