Painted Clay by Capel Boake was first published in Australia in 1917 but my copy is the 1986 Virago reprint. The author’s real name was Doris Boake Kerr and she also wrote under the name Stephen Grey. She spent most of her life in Melbourne, Australia which is the setting of this book.
Helen Somerset is an isolated young woman, brought up in Packington a suburb of Melbourne, by a reclusive father who has home schooled her. Her father has told Helen that her mother is dead and he has nothing good to say about her. He thinks that Helen will turn out to be like her mother and he’s a cold and aloof father, it’s a miserable life for Helen. Eventually Helen strikes up a friendship with the young women who live next door, she could hear them through the wall, their music and laughter and she longed to be part of it.
When her father dies Helen is only 16 and is in a sticky situation as she has to get out of what had been her home. Luckily she is taken in by the mother next door and her daughters Bella and Irene encourage Helen to get a job in a shop selling china. The work is dire as are the wages but Helen is happy to be out in the world. Eventually she’s encouraged to take evening classes in shorthand and typing to enable her to get a better job in an office.
As Helen’s life opens out and she makes friends with people who lead a more Bohemian lifestyle, living among artists she falls for an older man which is not exactly surprising since she had lacked a real father figure, but the relationship goes further than would be expected for the times, not that Helen feels guilty about that, she can’t see anything wrong with it, although knows that society would feel differently.
This is a really good read which deals with the changing attitudes of society and the changing lives of women who are more able to lead an independent life, but the men in their lives aren’t always as adaptable to the changes. Towards the end of the book the First World War breaks out which is obviously going to advance the cause of women’s independence albeit at a horrendous cost.
Capel Boake wrote three more novels and some poetry, but I don’t think the others have been reprinted which is a shame as I’d definitely read them if they were.
Not So Quiet by Helen Zenna Smith was first published in 1930 but my copy is a Virago from 1988. I can hardly believe it but this book has been sitting unread on my Virago shelves for getting on for 30 years. I have no idea why it has taken me so long to get around to it. When I picked it up last week and read the blurb I knew it was right up my street.
Helen Zenna Smith is a pseudonym . She was really Evadne Price, an Australian. She had a varied career, moving to England and becoming an actress, but she became a journalist and writer of children’s stories.
She was asked to write a parody of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front which had just been published the year before. The parody was to be called All’s Quaint on the Western Front by Erica Remarks. She thought that was an awful idea – and I agree. But she agreed to write a woman’s war story and when she met Winifred Constance Young who had been an ambulance driver at the front she was able to read her wartime diaries and use them to help her to write this book which tells of the horrors of war. Something that the people back home didn’t want to know about.
This is a great book which is I think very truthful about the experiences of the soldiers in the trenches and the V.A.D.’s who had to pick up their broken bodies. Helen Smith is an ambulance driver and of course the war is nothing like the folks back home think it is. Her parents are proud of their splendid daughter who’s doing her bit for King and Country. Her mother is not at all interested in the realities of war, but she spends her time on committees and vying with another woman to be the most important person in the neighbourhood. The war has just brought excitement into her life and a chance to boast about her daughter.
The reality is that the women volunteers are treated far worse than the troops are. The ambulance station commandant is a monster of a woman who is constantly on the lookout for reasons to punish the volunteers she’s in charge of. This means that the women get hardly any sleep. After doing their long shifts they have to scrub out the ambulances which are full of blood, vomit, body parts and everything that should be inside a human being – but isn’t. The food is uneatable and even the smell of it cooking makes them feel sick. Soldiers feel sorry for them.
There are quite a lot of detailed descriptions of mangled bodies and horrible injuries, but don’t let that put you off reading this book.
This book won the Prix Severigne in France as the “novel most calculated to promote international peace”.
The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman was published in 2012 and it was the first novel by the author who was born and grew up in Western Australia.
This one was a good read although at times a really tragic one.
The tale begins in 1926 and the setting is Janus Rock which is a tiny island with a lighthouse on it. Tom is the lighthouse keeper and he and his wife Izzy are the only inhabitants, they stay there for a year and get off it for a couple of weeks before returning. They get a visit from two men on a boat who bring them supplies and any letters once every three months. It takes a special sort of person to be able to cope with such an isolated location.
The action quickly skips back to December 1918 when Tom has got back from the war where he was an officer. Like many others he’s desperate to get a job, he’s glad to be in one piece but he knows that he’ll never be the same again after what he has experienced in the war. The peace and quiet of a remote island is just the sort of work he wants to heal his soul and after a few years there he meets and marries Izzy.
It seems like an idylic existence but Izzy suffers multiple miscarriages/still birth, she longs for a baby so when a small boat containing a dead man and a live baby washes up on the island, Izzy persuades Tom to allow her to keep the baby and pretend it is theirs. Izzy believes the baby’s mother must have been washed overboard so nobody would be missing the baby, it seems like an answer to her prayers but it turns out that it isn’t as simple as that.
This isn’t my usual sort of read but I decided to read it after reading a review on a blog I regularly visit but I can’t find which one it was, as often happens. I enjoyed it although I had to suspend my disbelief at times as how likely is it that a baby will wash up on your island just when you need one!
The blurb on the front says, ‘An extraordinary and heart-rending book about good people, tragic decisions and the beauty found in each of them,’ Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief.
It has recently been made into a film and you can see a trailer for it below.