#TheWoolgrowersCompanion #JoyRhoades #Review
It is 1945, the war drags bitterly on and it feels like the rains will never come again. All the local, able-bodied young men, including the husband Kate barely knows, have enlisted and Kate’s father is struggling with his debts and his wounds from the Great War. He borrows recklessly from the bank and enlists two Italian prisoners of war to live and work on the station.
With their own scars and their defiance, the POWs Luca and Vittorio offer an apparent threat to Kate and Daisy, the family’s young Aboriginal maid. But danger comes from surprising corners and Kate finds herself more drawn to Luca than afraid of him.
Scorned bank managers, snobbish neighbours and distant husbands expect Kate to fail and give up her home but over the course of a dry, desperate year she finds within herself reserves of strength and rebellion that she could never have expected.
The Woolgrower’s Companion is the gripping story of one woman’s fight to save her home and a passionate tribute to Australia’s landscape and its people.
I must admit that Australia circa 1945 is not a time or place I know a lot about but perhaps that is why this story appealed - or perhaps because sometimes I can't resist a bit of a sweeping saga that is going to take me away to a totally different time and place and completely absorb me into that world for a while! I am a fan of Kate Riordan, Katherine Webb's "The English Girl" and Paula McLain's "Circling the Sun" so this sounded very similar.
Well Joy Rhoades can certainly transport you to a different time and place! Her writing is very assured, confident and full of description that very firmly places you in Australia in the 1940s.
"....with her gloved hand Kate brushed away a fly. A drop of sweat ran between her shoulder blades and caught at the waist of her good frock."
I was intrigued by the historical context of this novel and it was really interesting to read about how the Italian POW were used to work on the farms despite the racism and resentment shown towards them from the land owners and Australians. Kate's attention is immediately captured by one such POW early on in the novel which creates a simmering tension and a immediate dilemma for Kate.
"Kate had seen foreigners before, of course: Chinese vegetable growers and Indian hawkers. She knew Aborigines too......but this man was different."
This novel also reflects and explores the role of women at the time. Kate is unnerved to discover more details about her father's financial situation but she is in no position to enquire or learn more about it.
"'They're bills,' she said softly..........'They don't seem to have been paid.'
'You have an interest now in business, Kate? ............Ya want t'have nothing t'do with bank fellas.....Best stick to housework.'"
Again this builds a certain level of tension as well as introducing a more complicated dynamic between Kate and her father. With the war, some women have experienced work, responsibility and more autonomy but now with the men returned there is an expectation for them too to return to life as it was before. Rhoades has chosen a very interesting period in which to set her story because of all these changes that are taking place in the world and does a great job of watching the repercussions within a small community and a family.
A few times, I did find some of the comments made by the characters a little jarring but this reflects the attitudes of the time and the prejudice that existed. Rhoades inclusion of these comments, observations, thoughts and ideas is essential in creating such a convincing portrayal of life in Australia at this time. Although it feels offensive to the modern ear, it is only in keeping with the authenticity of the novel. Rhoades acknowledges this herself at the end of the novel and interestingly the first acknowledgement is in accordance with Aboriginal custom and protocol.
This is a long read at just over 400 pages but it is a good read and a very well written story about human nature as well as an insight into one woman's life. And you are truly rewarded at the back of the book with some of Kate's recipes for scones and cake!
The Woolgrowers Companion is published on June 8th by Chatto and Windus.
To read my Q&A with Joy Rhoades please click here