At the risk of sounding ancient, there’s something pretty special about the anticipation of waiting for a new episode to drop in a series, rather than spending hour after hour bingeing an entire season on Netflix. I look back on my teen years and remember the excitement of the next instalment of the latest Australian miniseries (or the stress of ensuring the VCR was set to record if I wasn’t going to be home). My favourites included A Town Like Alice, For the Term of his Natural Life, Against the Wind and The Timeless Land to name a few.
Not surprisingly, my reading habits echoed my growing love for Australian historical fiction. While friends were obsessed with Flowers in the Attic, I was reading Sara Dane, My Brilliant Career and We of the Never Never.
Kate Grenville has long been one of my favourite authors, and A Room Made of Leaves did not disappoint. Breathing new life into familiar names from Sydney’s geography and landmarks, Grenville steps into the inner world of Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of John Macarthur who is widely credited with establishing Australia’s wool industry.
Grenville perfectly captures the challenges and hardships of Elizabeth Macarthur’s early life, the voyage to an unknown land and the establishment of a new home. Throughout the book, Elizabeth’s gentle humour, depth of character and wisdom are revealed in her interactions with her narcissistic and high-maintenance husband and her new friends. While the authentic letters of Macarthur appear formulaic and overly positive, Grenville imbues them with a more likely, harsh reality. In many respects, the letters are the original Facebook posts – showcasing only the best of life, and hiding, or at least disguising, the mundane, the frustration, and the heartbreak of real life. Grenville gives Elizabeth credit for her resilience and her shrewd dealings with her husband and the farm, credit that is often overlooked in a history written by men.
As with The Secret River, Grenville does not shirk from the ugly parts of Australia’s history, particularly as it relates to the Europeans’ interactions with Indigenous people, the treatment of women and alcohol-fuelled violence. Rather, she holds a mirror to the very issues that still affect us today.
As with every great work of historical fiction, the more I read, the more I want to learn. A Room Made of Leaves has rekindled my curiosity regarding central figures in Sydney’s colonial history – not only John and Elizabeth Macarthur, Dawes, Nepean and Tench, but also Pemulwuy, Patyegarang and other first Australians.
Please find here an assorted mix of what I tend to read - new books, old books, birthday gifts, gifts to myself, books from my to-be-read pile, Book Group books, fiction, non-fiction, memoirs - basically a weird assortment of goodies!
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