3 Great Historical Novels by Australian Women Writers

I’ve been reading so many books by Australian women writers this year, and I was doing so well with the Australian Women Writers reading and reviewing challenge. I had reviewed 7 books by July but since then, while I’ve read a lot, I haven’t reviewed any! So, I’m about to catch up by reviewing 3 books today, all of which are historical fiction. The books are: Elemental by Amanda Curtin, In Falling Snow by Mary-Rose MacColl and Burial Rites by Hannah Kent.

elementalFrom A Fish-Gutting Girl …

What can I say about Elemental, other than Amanda Curtin does so well the task essential to all good historical fiction: that of taking the reader into a time and place they could not otherwise have imagined, and immersing them in that time and place so thoroughly and engagingly that the reader feels as if they have lived the experience.

Elemental is about Fish-Meggie, the gutting girl from the top of the world. Meggie’s world is flesh-eatingly, bone-numbingly cold, and brutal. You feel the cold viscerally as you read of her dream to escape the shackles of her Scottish fishing village and her family, who see no value in education and who think it’s a woman’s role to carry a man on her back through freezing sea water so he can step into his boat without getting his feet wet. Meggie’s fear, and her sister Kitta’s fear, of ever having to succumb to this fate is beautifully and powerfully shown and when the moment comes, later in the book, where Kitta is forced to carry her grandfather in this way, the reader feels it as the assault that it is, and knows that Kitta’s story, from that moment on, is likely to be a tragic one.

Meggie’s story is told through a series of notebooks that she writes for her granddaughter and Meggie acknowledges the slippery nature of her memory and her own unreliability as a narrator; there are things from her past that she does not wish to tell. Regardless of knowing this, the reader believes every word of Meggie’s story, and her version of events, because her character is so real, so original and so compelling that we trust she will tell us the “truth” eventually. The narrative moves from Scotland to Australia, and out of the past and into the present, but it is Meggie’s voice, always discernible across all of these layers of story, that is the true heart of the novel.

burial-ritesTo An Icelandic Murderess …

Another book that takes us to a time and place outside the reader’s experience is Burial Rites by Hannah Kent. This book tells the story of Agnes, condemned to death for committing brutal murder. Agnes is a real historical figure and the murders actually happened in Iceland in the 1830s, and Agnes was one of those held responsible. Kent’s story tries to unpick Agnes’s character: is she the madwoman monster that history records her as, or is she a more complex figure? The book also leaves the reader pondering the inevitable question: was Agnes guilty?

There being no prisons in Iceland, Agnes is to serve her imprisonment, until her beheading, on a small farm. The family who live at the farm are obviously unenthusiastic about the prospect of having to guard a convicted murderess, not the least because they have two teenage daughters of an impressionable age.

Like Elemental, Burial Rites has multiple narrative strands. There are sections told in the first person, from Agnes’s point of view. I found these pieces became especially effective after about the first third of the book. Most of the book is told in the third person, and the reader is gradually allowed in to the story of what really happened leading up to and on the night of the murders as Agnes unfolds her story to a priest. Scattered throughout the book are historical documents, letters, court reports etc that present the way the story was recorded in history, but which I wondered if the narrative could in fact do without.

Kent’s skill is in allowing Agnes’s version of events, and her tragic past, to be told in evocative snippets; we get just enough in each snippet to want to know what happens next, but our attention is diverted before we are told too much. Also, her depiction of Iceland, and life on a poor farm in a cold climate where manual labour is the only method to do jobs that we would now find repulsive, is wonderful. My only minor quibble is that the sisters at the farm seemed too stereotyped, one supporting Agnes, one hating her, and I wished for a bit more complexity to their characterisations and relationships with Agnes. However, this did not detract from the story, which is a page-turner in the best possible way.

in-falling-snowTo A French Abbey in War-Time

Mary-Rose MacColl’s book, In Falling Snow, is another wonderful work of historical fiction. The book is primarily about the life of Iris, who goes across to France in World War One to find her brother Tom, and who ends up working as a nurse at Royaumont, an abbey converted to a field hospital by a group of determined women. The narrative shifts in time and point of view, as the other books do, from the war to Iris as an old woman in the 1970s, who clearly has a pretty big secret she’s been doing her best to hide all her life. Now, as she is nearing death, she is becoming increasingly haunted by this secret. The story also picks up on Iris’s granddaughter Grace, who is an obstetrician and mother to a son who appears to have some health issues that Grace is unwilling to face.

The trick with a book like this is to make all of the narrative strands as compelling as possible, so that the reader doesn’t become annoyed when we shift from the innocent Iris in all the tension of a field hospital in war time run by a group of extraordinary women, to Iris as a muddled old lady trying to stop the past from becoming her present, and then to Grace, battling family responsibilities and life as a female obstetrician in a man’s world. But MacColl does this brilliantly. Each narrative has its own set of secrets and intrigues that lead us cleverly up to the final twist, a twist many readers may have partially figured out, but which loses none of its impact in the final reveal.

Royaumont is of course the soul of this book and I loved the way MacColl’s research into this institution, that did actually exist, is woven into the story without ever feeling like research. She shines a light on a piece of history that I would never otherwise have known about, but which is a fascinating story in its own right.

So, three great books, all of which I can recommend to anyone who likes stories of strong heroines fighting against the restrictions of their times, to emerge as remarkable, if flawed, women.

What do you think? Have you read any of these books? I’d love to know what you thought of them too.

15 comments

  1. Louise Allan

    Hi Natasha,

    I know what you mean about ‘Burial Rites’. There were parts of it that irked me a little as I read, but at the end I had been so moved that I forgave any of its flaws. The story is so compelling and the writing is so poetic, and that trumped its faults. Did you think that? Readers can be very forgiving of flawed books if they think the story is worth it, e.g., ‘Twilight’ and ‘Fifty Shades’.

    • Absolutely, Louise. I always try, in my reviews to give each book a fair hearing, while still recognising that all books are lovingly crafted and the best the writer could make them at that moment. I also like first books because the slight flaws are beautiful pieces of the writer’s journey, part of learning their vocation, part of becoming the writer they will become.

      • Louise Allan

        I like your thoughts on first books, Natasha. Imperfection adds character and technical perfection can be dry — like comparing a studio recording to a live show. Recently I read that Marcus Zusak is embarrassed by parts of ‘The Book Thief’, but I think it’s all the more beautiful because of its imperfections.

        By the way, I just re-read my comment above and I hope people know that I wasn’t in any way lumping Burial Rites in with Twilight or Fifty Shades …

        • Yes, I agree. I look back at What is Left Over, After and note its faults but it wouldn’t be the book it is without them. It might be better, or not, I don’t know, but it wouldn’t be itself. Flaws lend character too, I think.

  2. I thought Burial Rites a haunting and accomplished novel, and a stunning debut, but I’ve yet to read In Falling Snow—thanks for the recommendation, Natasha. And thank you so much for your lovely words about Elemental, and for featuring Kitta, who is a character dear to my heart. 🙂

    • Kitta is close to my heart too, Amanda. The scene where she had to carry their grandfather was one of the most powerful in the book, for me. I felt the absolute loss of all the potential she had to be a brilliant and wonderful woman. I think you would enjoy In Falling Snow too.

  3. marlish glorie

    Thank you for this terrific post, Natasha. Like you, when reading Elemental I felt absolutely immersed in the story. In fact , I was shivering, had to rug up in a doona! So evocative was the novel I could well have taken up eating herring or speaking with a Scottish accent or breeding Monarch butterflies. Ach! I’m yet to read Burial Rites and will chase up In Falling Snow. But will definitely read both – during one of Perth’s infamous heatwaves! Here’s tae ya!

  4. Oh, such a beautiful post about beautiful books, Natasha. I loved Elemental and found it hard to read anything after that and I’m still ‘warming’ up to Burial Rites, in all senses of the word, but know that it will be a pleasure to savour as I read through. And I know what you mean about reading/reviewing. Sometimes I think I should just appoint myself as reader/reviewer and spend all my time munching chewies and breathing in books. PhD? Work for a living? Meals and housework? Whatever for?

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