Whilst this book can be read as fiction it is based based on letters and documents about a woman moving out to Sydney when it was a land of convicts and the military and focuses on how she finds her true self whilst there. But it is also a story of how women were written out of history and how Aboriginal people were removed from their land by the settlers.
It starts with a story as old as time. Elizabeth met John behind a hedge before a fair and not long after they had to marry. Elizabeth was a headstrong young woman with a husband who had a real, but well-hidden, sense of inferiority and so every act and deed that he undertook was to bolster himself. Whilst in debt, he arranges a post in Australia and sets off with his wife and child on a six month journey.
They settle and move from a hovel to a bigger house and then a bigger one and then eventually obtain some land all through John MacArthur’s dealings, underhand ways with people, smarming and charming when needed. What he failed to realise was that his wife had the measure of him and learnt how to control him and use this to her advantage.
Elizabeth was capable of making connections with other women, sometimes those who worked for her and other times those she came across. As a military wife amongst other military people, she was often the only wife and therefore women were few and far between. At times her conversations were stumbling, particluarly when she wanted to say something from the heart.
I wanted to unravel our exchange and knit it up into a different shape.p140
It is a story, like the book, where the boundaries between lies and truth, fiction and fact, are blurred with only one winner and that is Elizabeth herself. And so, at the beginning of the book she writes about how she knows she was complicit in the stealing of the land but she loves it so, she can not give it back. I am not quite sure whether this is supposed to help us understand why it can’t be given back because it doesn’t really. Are we saying that the Aborigines didn’t love the land? This part of the book, I felt was weaker than other aspects.
It is written in very short chapters, snippets almost and covers Elizabeth’s lifetime – a lifetime of patience waiting for her turn to be herself. Looking back, she at least is not as dissatisfied as Hagar in The Stone Angel, and found contentment with her sheep breeding and the money it raised whilst her husband was back in England.
If you liked this, you might like The Stone Angel by Margaret Laurence as another book where a woman looks back on her life.
If you are interested in how women are written out of history, you might also like Trust by Hernan Diaz, The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields and Real Estate by Deborah Levy