A river not yet tamed by Nancy Cato
So, I downloaded this book, and the recording has the full We Are Serious treatment. It’s in the Bolinda Classics line. We start out with Bud Tingwell saying “Hi, I’m Bud Tingwell and you’d better brace yourself, because we are about to lay some Clasic Australian Fiction on you. Hold onto it or lose it, listener, because we’re going Large!”*
And then, it’s a teen romance. Now, I like teen novels, and one of the few series I collect is an adult historical romance series, but there’s a certain discontinuity between “We will rock you!”** and Twilight, but with fewer vampires and more Australians.
So, bildungsroman: I can get behind that. Lots of really interesting books are about coming of age. The problem with this one, IMO, is that the heroine is too passive. She starts as an orphan, which is a classic, sure, but at the same time its a cheat. It makes the clean break easy. She has a wicked stepmother figure in her aunt. Her uncle’s jovial, but a scumbag, which is what has curdled his wife’s life. It’s not much of a shock she’s loosely tied to these people, so her leaving isn’t much of a stretch.
The thing is, for a proper coming of age story, the character has to demonstrate, through her actions, her personality. Philadelphia never does this, with the possible exception of her final financial investment. Things happen to her, and she reacts by being passively carried along. She never forces any change for herself. She never shows who she is, beyond little matters of if he’s allowed to wear her hair up or down. I arrived at the end and felt that the story was about to start, not that I had read a plot which has reached a natural point of conclsuion. Why is Philadelphia the lead, and not any of the other girls who appear in the novel? So far, we simply don’t know.
As an evocation of time and place, it didn’t quite hit home for me either. It read a little like the books written by English women who had come to Australia and were writing home. We know what eucalypts smell like. We know they aren’t deciduous. The more you refer to these things as if they are exceptions, rather than the normal thing, then the more your characters are aliens. Australians really don’t write to each other about how odd it is that eucalypts have cresent shaped leaves, or that spotted gums are pink. Books whose omniscient narrators do this don’t sound Australian: they sound like outsiders looking in from an exterior frame of reference where there are other standards of normal.
Also, I love paddlesteamers, as the closest thing you can get to dirigibles. There are none, in any detail, in this book.
So, not a bad book: enjoyable as a teen romance, but with a sad ending. I’m not sure what elements are meant to make this a waypoint in the development of Australian literature. Nancy Cato has such a strong following, that I’ll eventually give the next book in the series a chance. She gets 72 minutes, and if I’m not gripped, I’ll listen to something else. There’s too much to read and write and record and listen to give authors more than a few chances to amaze.
* Yes, I was on pain meds at the time. I’m sure it was something like that.
** Or something like that…