I’m cramming in as many books by Australian women writers before the Stella longlist announcement as I can, and have taken advantage of my library’s audio selection.
Vida by Jacqueline Kent
Although ostensibly about the suffrage movement in Victoria (and Australia), Vida reveals so much about Australian society in the late 19th century.
Vida Goldstein worked tirelessly toward the vote for women and this aspect of her story is meticulously described by Kent, however, it was Vida’s other social justice work (and that of her family and peers) that was truly fascinating – the Book Lovers’ Bookshop and Library; the first crèche in Melbourne; the first female students at Melbourne University; the development of Queen Victoria Hospital (with an early crowd funding effort!); and having the women’s prison staffed entirely by women (the only in British empire) – I was left with a sense of Vida being an incredible force (who was also insightful, polite, firm, kind, and persistent), and also aware of how influential her family was in indulging her pursuits.
What this book lacked for me was Kent’s creative flourish – a sense of Kent, the writer – because I could read a history text book for facts (granted this history has not been presented in a text book)… What I wanted was lush detail to become immersed in (of the Forgotten Rebels of Eureka variety). It didn’t quite deliver that, but I will see places in Melbourne and parts of our history through new eyes.
Riptides by Kirsten Alexander
I decided against this book last year when I read a sample chapter but it’s Stella season, and it was available, so I listened. Alas, my initial thoughts about the style not being my cup of tea held true.
Small details mark place and time (Brisbane in the 1970s) – the adults pouring drinks from a cask of Moselle, kids holding their legs off burning metal slides, a mention of Coppertone sunscreen – and broader events such as Cyclone Tracy and the early years of the Bjelke-Petersen government, gave context without being overdone. However, the opening sequence struck me as implausible and, given that the rest of the story unfolds from that point, I struggled to stay invested. Additional plot twists didn’t help, and distracted from the moral dilemma at the heart of the book.
What feelings will rear up now that I’ve purged myself by speaking the truth? Everybody knows nature abhors a vacuum.
Stone Sky Gold Mountain by Mirandi Riwoe
Going by the blurb, Stone Sky Gold Mountain appears to be a simple and straightforward story set on the goldfields in Queensland in the late 19th century, and I imagine it could be read (and very much enjoyed) at face value. But it also delivers beautifully developed and complex characters, and holds broader themes – gender, isolation, grief, identity, our sense of home – lightly.
Unfortunately, sooner or later, the price of love will always be grief.
Historical fiction is not my go-to genre – too often the story gets bogged down by detail – but in this case, Riwoe’s plot delivers tension, heartbreak, and an outstanding sense of time. I reckon it will appear on the Stella longlist, and for those that want to delve deeper into the darker themes that Riwoe presents, there’s much to work with.