TheInaugural Meeting of the
Fairvale Ladies Book Club
by Sophie Green.
Books bring them together - but friendship will transform all of their lives. Five very different women come together in the Northern Territory of the 1970s by an exceptional new Australian author.
That is the tagline for this new novel that seems to be channelling Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend and Thorn Birds. In all honesty this was not quite the novel I was expecting; with this title I was expecting the actual bookclub to be far more of a presence. In fact, while the Book Club was what brought the central characters together, it was very much pushed into the background by events in their lives and in the wider world. Somewhat disappointingly the Fairvale Ladies only seemed to hold their bookclub about twice a year.
While this was a disappointment for a ridiculous bookworm, and big bookclub fan, it did not effect the effectiveness or poignancy of the novel as a whole.
Starting in 1978 this novel follows the lives of five women, all of who are struggling with some aspect of life in the remote and difficult Northern Territory.
the location is integral to this novel and to the lives of everyone represented, the author evidently sees the beauty of this alien landscape, but at no point does she romanticise or ignore how brutal and hard life can be when confronted by the heat, humidity and extremes of climate. The central character here is Sybil Baxter an ex-nurse from Sydney who has raised a family of two boys on the Fairvale cattle station. Her family relationships have started to fall apart as her eldest son has finally abandoned the family, the debts are mounting up and her younger son is forced to leave his new English wife and his home to earn a living. Sybil is the driving force behind the initial meetings of the book club, hoping to find a connection with her young daughter in law, and to find a way to keep both of them entertained and connected to the outside world.
Kate is the sheltered young English woman, trying to forge a new life in an unfamiliar world, and being tested physically and emotionally by the trials she finds in this new home a world away from everything she has known. The character that Kate connects to most strongly is also a long way from home; Della is a Texan used hard work and to supporting her family. In Australian she is a pioneer both through her job on Ghost Station as a cattle hand, and also through her interracial love affair with Stan, one of the Aboriginal workers there. While I was hopeful for Della at the start, I found her the least convincing of the women portrayed here. The use of her love affair with Stan was a great way to highlight some very difficult aspects in recent Australian history, the lack of acceptance that they find among the local community makes it clear that there was no parity to be found in 1970s Australia; however Della's lack of understanding of the situation seemed a little bizarre for a woman of the period. At times the writing seemed to be more heavy handed than it needed to be, it also felt very much as though it was coming from a contemporary standpoint. This clashed with the majority of the novel, which captured period detail really well. For me Della's character was just a little more clunky that that of the others.I found the final two characters the most interesting, SallyAnne is struggling with small town prejudice; three young kids and an emotionally abusive drunk husband. She has so many unfulfilled dreams and fears that her life is essentially over. Rita on the other hand is a slightly jaded and fiercely independent nurse with the Flying Doctors, she worked with Sybil back in Sydney and is still trying to reconcile herself to emotional disappointments. For these two, the character arcs seemed both realistic and also the most dramatic. It was deeply satisfying watching SallyAnne blossom and gain in confidence as she distanced herself from her abusive husband. Again this relationship was used to highlight a dark aspect of Australian society, this time an ingrained misogyny that permeates all levels of society.
One thing that I did really like about the novel was the inclusion of short reading notes about all of the titles chosen to be part of the bookclub's reading list; even those that seem to have proved to be too racy for the club to actually read, such as The Group.
Overall this is not a perfect novel, however it is a wonderful portrayal of female friendship and the resourcefulness of women in difficult circumstances. The landscape and climate are used to convey so much about the emotional states of the characters and the whole thing has a perfectly Australian flavour throughout. This is a light an easy read, but not a bit of fluff. It has some wonderful characterisations and some beautiful prose, certainly one to look out for.