Author: Harmony Verna
The blurb on the back of this book says:
In a stunning debut novel that evokes the epic scope of Colleen McCullough’s classic The Thorn Birds, Harmony Verna creates a poignant story of forbidden love and unwielding courage, set in Australia and America in the early decades of the twentieth century.
A comparison to The Thorn Birds, that’s some pretty big shoes to fill and some hefty expectations. Daughter of Australia is also a debut, which means no-one has any idea on this author’s work or what to expect.
I read an uncorrected proof copy which arrived on my desk a little while ago and I wanted to start it but I was also eagerly awaiting another epic Australian historical so ended up putting this one off. The decision to feature it as a book club title jumped it straight to the top of the pile, and I’m still itching to get my claws into the other historical; and leaves me wishing I had read it when it first arrived.
Western Australia is the background to much of this epic tale, and epic it really is. Beginning with the heartbreaking abandonment of a young girl by her father in the heat of the West Australian desert just before the turn of the 20th Century I knew that my heartstrings would be getting a workout in this one.
The young girl is discovered under a tree by passing miners, miraculously still breathing but only just. The miners detour from their planned route to get her help, finding a Doctor but no hospital in the nearest town. Trauma has silenced the girl, which doesn’t do her any favours as her physical wounds heal. Unable to discover anything about the foundling she is named after the town she is saved in, Leonora, and sent to an orphanage.
Now, at this point I know that Leonora is our heroine, she is going to be with us until the end. Her saviour though, I expected his part in the narrative to end with his handing her into the arms of the Doctor but that was not to be.
Ghan is a miner who has done it tough, mining wasn’t a safe occupation and Ghan has the scars to prove it. Arms crisscrossed in scar tissue, a leg that drags, a missing ear and a face that has been the brunt of too many fists. He is so caught up in the ugliness of his body that even he doesn’t recognise the beauty of his kind soul. He heads back to his delivery after leaving Leonora with the Doctor but he can’t put her out of his head so he returns at his next opportunity.
Ghan is a hard and dedicated worker, he doesn’t know how not to be working so he finds himself following the work. His injuries create issues for him at times but he always manages to get just enough work to get by and throughout the narrative we pick up with him a couple of times and see what he’s up to.
Leonora is disadvantaged at the orphanage because many of the other orphans see her silence as weakness and use it to make her a victim. James, one of the other orphans, takes her under his wing and slowly they forge a friendship as he fights to protect her; until they are separated. Leonora is adopted by a wealthy American family and James is taken in by relatives who came from Ireland for him.
The story follows both Leonora and James as their lives take them in different directions, and separates them by continents. Neither of them find the life they dreamed of and both are plagued by heartbreak and hardships, though of totally different types.
The characterisation is interesting to say the least. Verna has written a wealth of different character types and they have all been written well. Australia at the turn of the 20th Century was an interesting time in history, with the rise and fall of mining, farming and the relations with the indigenous population. None of the characters are black and white, none are inherently good or inherently evil though there is one that was pretty irredeemable I thought.
From the very first time that we see her we know that Leonora is special, there is a light in her that touches all those around her. She is good, she is huge hearted and she wants to do good with her life but that isn’t always as easy to put into practice and she makes some questionable choices, though we can always see the justification for her choices and they were never lightly made.
I was kept guessing quite well in this one actually. I would think I had it picked, be sure I knew what was going to happen, and then that would be thrown right off the table and I would be left wondering if there would be a happy ever after.
There were some beautiful moments but there was also an awful lot of heartbreak and an emotional rollercoaster of just how bad things could get.
Daughter of Australia has an authenticity that surprised me and a believability I wasn’t sure I would find. Verna masterfully illustrates the massive divide between the wealthy and the poverty stricken and the hidden depths behind every appearance.
Surprisingly emotional and entertaining this is a convincing debut that will definitely have Verna finding fans ready to watch where her career takes her.