Fiction – hardcover; Chatto & Windus; 416 pages; 2017. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Joy Rhodes’ The Woolgrower’s Companion is a sweeping saga set in the Australian outback during the Second World War. The story is best described as one woman’s struggle to save the family farm against the odds. Admittedly, this is not my normal cup of tea, but this is the kind of romantic story you can lose yourself in, especially if you’re looking for something easy and enjoyable to read on holiday.
Life on a farm
It’s the 1940s and Kate Dowd co-owns a large sheep station with her father, a returned soldier from the First World War. Her mother died a couple of years ago, so Kate runs the household (cooking, cleaning, gardening), managing Daisy, the young Aboriginal maid, and helping Harry, the 10 year old nephew of Mr Grimes, the farm manager.
She’s married, but her husband Jack is in the Army and is stuck in Sydney training soldiers. They never see each other.
When her father begins behaving oddly — losing his memory, not wanting to get out of bed, losing his temper — it’s up to Kate to keep things together: to make sure the men who live and work on the farm are paid, including two Italian prisoners of war (POW) who have been employed for their horsemanship; that routine maintenance is being carried out; that the sheep are being looked after properly; and that things keep ticking over despite the fact the region is plagued by drought and water is in short supply.
This new level of involvement in the management of the farm makes Kate realise there’s something not quite right: her father owes a massive amount of money to the bank and if the bills aren’t paid soon there’s a chance the property and all the livestock will be repossessed.
Multiple plot lines
Most of the plot revolves around Kate’s attempts to fend off the bank. But there are subsidiary plots revolving around the POWs (will she or won’t she become romantically involved with Luca, who helps in the garden, for instance), an ongoing hunt for a yellow sapphire that Kate’s father bought then hid in a place so secret he can no longer remember where he put it, and a dilemma over what to do when the help falls pregnant.
The book explores the strict social codes of the time as well as the racism, which makes it socially unacceptable for Kate to not only work on the farm but to form a friendship with a young aboriginal person. It examines the legacy of the First World War on those who fought on the battlefields of Europe and tells the little known story of how Italian POWs were shipped from British POW camps in India and sent to work on Australian farms (to replace those farmers who were fighting abroad). And it’s a fascinating portrait of life on the land in the harsh Australian outback.
It’s an evocative tale from another era, written in simple, often lyrical prose, where the landscape is as much a part of the story as the well drawn characters that inhabit it. This subtle and perceptive story largely draws on the experiences of the author’s paternal grandmother, a fifth generation sheep farmer from northern NSW, which lends it a ring of authenticity.
For me The Woolgrower’s Companion sometimes felt a bit slow going and the storyline slightly cliched, but it’s a good historical novel and will appeal to a broad audience.
Earlier this week Joy Rhoades took part in Triple Choice Tuesday. To see which three books she recommends, please visit this post.
This is my seventh book for #AWW2017.