Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is a powerful and riveting account of a family struggling to make a living in the harsh environment of coastal South Australia, depicting the pioneering patriarchal entrepreneur and his devoted but long-suffering wife, and the children that will grow up with both an attachment to the place and an instinct to escape it. This story gets inside you and makes you feel the struggle and the dilemma, and wish that it could have been different.

We meet Hester Finch, in Chichester, England in 1874 where she lives as a widow with her son Joss, in the house where her mother spent her childhood, remembered from the stories her mother used to tell, in a place so far from this new reality, of that life in Salt Creek, South Australia.

Hester takes us back to her childhood in the Coorong, narrating the family story throughout the period she lived with them at Salt Creek from 1855 to 1862. Her father was an entrepreneurial businessman, who could never settle to one thing, without always having his eye on the next great idea, the thing that was going to make him rich, a success. For a while the family had lived in Adelaide, while he ran a successful dairying business, but not content to stick with that he would borrow against the things that seemed solid to invest in the next thing. He’d bought land at Salt Creek, but the sheep he’d hoped to farm were lost at sea while being transported, causing the entire family to be uprooted as the family home required selling to pay the debts.

The family find themselves leaving their grandparents, friends and familiar town environment behind to live on an isolated peninsula in rural South Australia. They must rely on each for company, schooling and help their parents out to run the farm and household.

Hester’s mother becomes melancholy and withdrawn from the moment she views her future home, requiring Hester to have to step into a more encompassing role than just that of eldest daughter. To add to her woes, their mother whose youngest Mary is only three years old, discovers she is again with child, and the nearest neighbour not company she can bring herself to indulge.

Mrs Robinson was no comfort to her and never would be; she was the measure for Mama of how far she had fallen.

The family discover indigenous Ngarrindjeri people camping not far from their property, and become interested in a boy named Tully, who is able to speak a little English and seems keen to learn more. Slowly he slips into their lives, though without ever letting go of his ways, his disappearances, his unassuming manner, his sharing of old knowledge about which trees can and shouldn’t be cut, which ducks to avoid, much of it disregarded particularly by the two eldest sons and the father as superstitions to be ignored.

“Do you know what that boy told me today? That we shouldn’t have chopped that tree down and then showed me which ones we should use, can you believe it? Didn’t have all the words but did very well making his thoughts known. I told him we would use the wood that we saw fit since it was ours, not his, and did not trouble to conceal my feelings.”

Although the father believes himself to have an enlightened view, that all men are created equal and seen by the Divine as being equal, his beliefs are challenged when it comes to his own family, both in the example he sets for his son (in relation to indigenous women) and the restrictions he places on his daughters (including his desire to use matrimony as business negotiating device).

It is the younger siblings who grow into and live his more open minded view, and who will force to the surface his deep conditioning, which is unable to embrace those beliefs at all. Hester recalls the first day they set eyes on indigenous people and is filled with remorse:

When I think of what they became to us and how long I have been thinking of them I would like to return to that day and stop the dray and shout at our ghostly memories and the natives: ‘I am sorry. I am sorry for what is to come.’

While the older boys rebel by going off to try their luck in the goldfields, the younger sibling Fred stands his ground and resists his fathers efforts to use him as a form of payment, he spends a lot of time drawing plants in his notebook and is fascinated by the work of Charles Darwin.

“Watching Fred, I began to wonder if it was something other than interest and curiosity alone that drove his actions. He was so purposeful in what he did. Self doubt did not occur to him; he was able to look only at the thing, the task before him. I wished that I could do the same. My own self was mysterious t me. Oh, I knew what I did, but other than that I was invisible to myself…I did not know or see the difference that I made, the space I occupied in this world.”

Hester stays and stays, witness to all that occurs, as the challenges of Salt Creek and the rigid attitude of their father begin to wear everyone down. Hester is warned more than once, that she should not hesitate should there be an opportunity for her to escape. Mrs Robinson comments ‘Hard for girls like you’ to Hester and when questioned why, tells her:

I know, my dear, I know. It’s the expectations that hold you back. They’ll kill you in the end, if you’re not careful, suck the life right out of you. Run, I say. Run whenever you should have the chance, don’t spare a glance back or you’ll turn to salt or stone.”

The arrival of European settlers, their desire to own and restrict land, to create boundaries, while beneficial to their capitalist desires, becomes increasingly detrimental to the way of life of the indigenous people, as they pollute their fresh water access, introduce sickness and disease and contemplate removing their children.

Brilliantly conceived and heartbreaking to read, Salt Creek opens itself wide for discussion on the many issues related to the impact of colonial idealism, whether it’s how it affects women and children, how it impacts and impedes the native population, the imposition of solutions by one group on the other, the inherent disrespect and disregard for a different way of life.

I’m interested to read these accounts yet I am repelled by what transpires, knowing there is little possibility for an alternative ending, it is and always be a kind of clash of civilisations, which annihilates the ancient view, and will only accept its input when it has been turned it into a version of itself.

Lucy Treloar speaks of the considerable unease she felt and continues to feel two years on from its initial publication  in Australia, at telling the story, which was partly inspired by her ancestors attempt to set up a farm in the Coorong region. Compelled to share the experience and uncomfortable in the role they played. – Lucy Treloar on writing about indigenous Australians

The short video below gives voice to the Ngarrindjeri people and some hope that we might learn something from their more sustainable way of living in harmony with the natural elements around us.

Note: This book was an ARC (Advance Reader Copy) kindly provided by Aardvark Bureau, an imprint of Gallic Books. It is published in the UK in September 2017.

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The Dry by Jane Harper

fire-danger-ratingAustralia is in the midst of coping with an extremely hot summer, Sydney and Brisbane experiencing the hottest January on record, February looking even hotter with the arrival of a heat wave and increased fire risks in Victoria and New South Wales (where currently 49 fires are burning across the state, 17 of which are not contained and the fire rating is at the level of  “catastrophic”).

A situation that makes the context of Jane Harper’s new novel seem wearily appropriate.

The Dry is Jane Harper’s cracking debut crime fiction novel set in a fictional southeastern Australian town, suffering the effects of the ‘The Big Dry’, a nine-year drought.

Tthe-dryhe story follows Aaron Falk, a police officer from Melbourne, who returns to the town he and father were run out of many years back, for the funeral of his childhood friend Luke. It is clear he wants the visit over and done with as soon as possible and is unwilling to engage with anyone.

However Luke’s father is not happy with the way the police have handled his son’s apparent murder/suicide and asks Falk to stay and look into it.

With several twists, suspects and an intriguing back story of another death of a girl that occurred when the friends were teenagers, it sets a good pace, while exploring the effect of climatic conditions on a small rural community and the circumstances that cause others to seek out smaller towns as an escape.

Jane Harper is at work on her next novel, which also features the protagonist Aaron Falk.

I reviewed The Dry for Bookbrowse, where you can read the full review and a Beyond the Book article on The Big Dry.

Further Reading:

Australia Swelters in Heatwave and argues about Energy Future – The Guardian, Friday 10 Feb, 2017

A Page-Turner of a Mystery Set in a Parched Australia – NY Times review

The Life and Loves of Lena Gaunt by Tracy Farr

Tracy Farr’s delightful, fascinating debut novel is the fictional memoir of Dame Lena Gaunt: musician, octogenarian, puffer of exotic substances. It was one of my Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2015.

Lena went from a background of playing traditional instruments to becoming a modern musician, being the first theremin player of the twentieth century, an intriguing instrument played through movement but without the musicians hands actually touching the instrument.

Lena Gaunt

From its opening pages where we experience Lena’s daily routine, her strong pull to the sea, The memory of music in her bones, it becomes a book that grows on you until it becomes unputdownable.

“I move my arms in wide arcs in front of me, pushing water out to the sides and back again. I can feel the stretch in my shoulders, the tendons tense and twist. Bubbles form up my arms and, trapped in the tiny pale hairs, tickling like the bead in champagne. Moving my fingers in the water effects tiny changes in the waves that effect bigger movements. Action at a distance; just like playing the theremin.”

Lena Gaunt was an only child, born in Singapore, spending a solitary childhood in the tropics before being sent “back Home” her parents called it, alone to Australia where her Uncle deposited her at a private boarding school, at four-years of age. She became closer to her bachelor Uncle Valentine than her parents, who were distant, not just physically, but emotionally and who died before any change in their relationship might manifest.

Lena played the piano, but her first true love was the cello, one of her few regrets, that in taking up the theremin, the instrument she would become most well-known for, she stopped playing the cello.

After an unsuccessful visit to her father in Malacca (Malaysia) at 18, one where he had hoped to groom her into the demure, music playing, after dinner entertainment for his friends, a night walk into the seedier parts of the town, where she stumbles across her Uncle and her father’s business partner in an opium den, has her sent back to Australia, willingly and to the beginning of a life she will create anew.

“It had taken little for me to disappoint my father, but in truth, he too had disappointed me. Father, home, family; empty words, without meaning for me.”

She is introduced to and practices cello with Madame Vita Petrova, the eccentric, vodka and coffee drinking Russian with a unique ear and skill for the cello, not found in the more conservative establishments. It is her first encounter with the artistic and musical misfits, a bohemian community with whom she is more comfortable and will become part of.

It is through Madame Petrova she hears of the Professor, the man who introduces her to the instrument, the Music’s Most Modern Instrument, she will play for the world, the theremin.

“played by the waving of hands, like conducting an orchestra. It is played without the player touching it, not with a bow, nor by blowing. It is neither wind nor string, brass nor percussion.”

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

The Bridge, Dorrit Black (1930)

In Sydney, she meets Beatrix Carmichael, a painter/artist twice her age who becomes her constant companion, a part of who she is, one who really sees her. As Beatrix paints the two sides of the Sydney Harbour Bridge coming together on her canvases, from the verandah of their home, it feels so real, and yet there is a sense of the end of an era, as the subject becomes less intriguing on completion.

“We celebrated it, this joining of the city, the coming together, and yet Trix mourned it too. Since her return from Europe, since her arrival in Sydney, she’d been painting the growing bridge in parts, separate; in fragmented shapes formed of light and colour and sun and music.”

The novel follows Lena’s long, engaging life, and each turn of events that takes her away from the familiar until finally she returns to the place that most feels like home, where she plays one last performance and will meet the young filmmaker Mo, who provokes her into completing the life story she began to record many years before.

As the filmmaker questions Lena Gaunt about her life before the performance she had just given (in her eighties), the narrative flashes back to her past, her isolated childhood, boarding school, separation from family, visits by Uncle Valentine, the piano, the cello, musical influences, her life with Beatrix, making her remember it all, even the painful memories she had hoped never to re-encounter.

It is a fascinating story, a mix of fact and fiction, one that Tracy Farr succeeds in bringing alive through the places Lena visits and lives in, the people we encounter, the music that is made, the images that are painted and the heartbreaking losses she must sustain.