Author: Liz Byrski
In The Company of Strangers is a novel with many integral characters and converging storylines centralising at Benson’s Reach, the home and business of Catherine Benson.
There is a lot of time dedicated to getting to know each of the characters in the beginning of the book and I did find myself once or twice thinking that I was ready for it all to start coming together. Each of these characters brings a plethora of emotional baggage to the story, most of it deep-seated, unspoken and, to an extent, crippling.
In a lot of ways Catherine Benson is the cornerstone of this story even though she has passed on before the story opens. Catherine leaves Benson’s Reach to her oldest friend Ruby and her nephew Declan, with a letter going to Ruby explaining that she has let the place go a little in the last months as she hasn’t been well enough to handle the proper running of the place and she needs Ruby to return to Australia to help get Benson’s Reach back on its feet. A task that she doesn’t feel Declan is up to on his own.
Ruby has a satisfying and full life in England with a lot of history in Australia but it is a history Ruby has always felt was better left buried in the past. Catherine’s letter compels her to return to Australia and see what needs to be done to get Benson’s Reach thriving the way it once was.
Declan is a bit of a lost soul, never having found his true calling and feeling way out of his depth. He had kept putting off his return to Benson’s Reach and his Aunt Catherine which left him no time to learn about the business before it passed to him. He is left out of his depth and floundering in his guilt for not arriving sooner.
We meet Alice in her last days before release from prison, to begin with she has no apparent connections with Benson’s Reach and we aren’t really sure how she fits in.
Lesley is another seemingly random addition, she is struggling with her life at home and her retired husband. She decides to book a break on her own to sort herself out and chooses Benson’s Reach on the strength of an enjoyable past holiday.
Once everyone is assembled at Benson’s Reach the rebuilding of the business begins, slowly they begin piecing together what needs to be done and we are introduced to more of the cast in the form of staff at Benson’s Reach.
In the process of sorting through the office a file is discovered with information about a music festival that’s booked to take place in three short months so there is no time to lose. Plans have to be made, duties delegated and everyone needs to do their part.
Alongside the practicalities of bringing Benson’s Reach back up to scratch and sorting all of the details for the festival is the development of the characters and the growth of bonds between them. Effectively, all of the characters arrived at Benson’s Reach strangers. The existing staff knew each other but their main connections were with Catherine.
Situations and circumstances arise that allow pieces of the puzzles of the past to be brought to light, to the benefit of all involved. This group of strangers has for the most part been brought together by Catherine, a group of damaged souls in need of healing, and those that weren’t brought in by Catherine certainly would have met with her approval.
Through the course of the novel we learn the back-story of each character, we are allowed a window into their pain and their loss, but most importantly we bear witness to their growth and the way they work through their issues, as well as the bonds they forge with each other.
One thing I love about this book is the story of Ruby’s early life as one of the Child Migrants from England, the way it shaped her and the way it then included the very public 2009 National Apology to the Forgotten Australians and former Child Migrants.
Liz Byrski has woven a beautiful tale of friendship, the family we choose and second chances. Interesting, well developed characters and relationships that warmed my heart. And with central characters that are older than you normally find at the centre of a story which was quite a refreshing change.
I would certainly be interested to read more of Liz Byrski in the future.