Book Club: In The Company of Strangers

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Author: Liz Byrski
ISBN: 978-1-7426-1129-7
RRP: $32.99

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.

in the company of strangers

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.

11 thoughts on “Book Club: In The Company of Strangers

  1. In the Company of Strangers; Liz Byrski.
    I loved the look of this book, even before I turned a page. The cover, pictured above in Michelle’s review, shows a beautiful photo of lavender fields in full bloom with gorgeous trees at sunset. Anyone who has been fortunate enough to see lavender fields in full bloom won’t easily forget the experience, which will stay with them forever.
    In the left hand corner of the cover are the words, “It can be someone you don’t know, who lets you know yourself…..”
    It has been a long time since I’ve read a book I’ve enjoyed more, a book that is so satisfying and uplifting. The fact that much of the book is set in Margaret River, Western Australia, and is by an Australian author is a bonus.
    the book deals beautifully with social issues, loss,grief, friendships, acceptance and love in its many forms and does so with integrity, very little judgement and such sympathy with the characters that you feel as though you are right there with them.
    Ruby and Cat’s friendship began sixty years ago on an English Dockside when the girls were to leave for Australia, through the Child Migration Program. The dependence of these young girls, seven and eight years old, on each other through the long voyage from London to Australia, the terrible years in a convent and then as they begin their working life, through to becoming young adults is at the heart of the story, as is the difficult estrangement, splitting the friendship from which it can’t fully recover until after Cat’s death.
    Ruby returns to London after a heartbreak which leaves her never wanting to return to Benson’s Reach which, until that time had held happy memories.
    An unlikely duo are bequeathed Benson’s Reach, which had become Cat’s home, lavender farm, cafe and shop in Cat’s will. Ruby needs to return to Benson’s Reach, with its painful memories, from her home in London to try to organise a satisfactory settlement with the other benefactor, Cat’s nephew, Declan. These almost complete strangers, along with Declan’s friend, Alice – herself in so much need of love and acceptance – become like family, the family none of them have.
    There are other characters who are essential to the story and the way they all grow as people, dependant on each other but developing as individuals makes for one of the most beautifully woven and satisfying novels I’ve had the pleasure of reading.
    Everything is so well rounded but not “forced.” Each character is a “real” person, believable, vulnerable, dependant on the others but through the relationship with the other characters is able to become “their own person.”
    The way Ruby and Declan, with the assistance of the other characters, reorganise Benson’s Reach so that not only the property but the characters grow and reach potential makes for excellent reading.
    It is, without any doubt, one of the most beautiful books I’ve read.
    Thank you, Beauty and Lace and Pan Macmillan for the privelege of having this wonderful novel to review.

  2. A lovely, lovely book and certainly very nice to read. It has a great flow through out the book. Great to settle down with a cuppa in front of a fire on a cold winters day.The characters were well difined and I could certainly relate to most of them but I felt there was a distance to Ruby. Unfortunately I didnt find it very challenging even tho I did enjoy it. Other than the suicide of Paula, there were no twists to keep me thinking but instead it did touch on a few of lifes issues but in a gentle way which in turn brought up feelings from my past which is a sign of a good book. After the first chapter it did cross my mind that this was a carbon copy of a book I read not so long ago but with different characters in a different place setting but the more read, I realized that this was not the case thankfully.I would like to read a few more of Liz’s novels and will head off to the library to see what I can find.

  3. This story has just had me captivated from Chapter 1, with its assortment of colourful, wonderful characters that I bonded with on every page, even though each had their own secret. The front cover of the book is just beautiful in itself showing a mass of lavender in front of an Australian tree.

    The story revolves around a strong bonding friendship of two young girls named Cat & Ruby, that were child migrants, transported to Australia from England. As they grew up into women, something happened between them that tore apart their close friendship and Ruby returned to London. Cat runs a popular lavender farm on the beautiful Margaret River and when Cat dies, Ruby returns and it is here in the beginning of the story that we then get to meet the rest of the characters that will be brilliantly drawn into the story and to each other.

    This book has been brilliantly written and is a great, memorable read. I found myself with tears in parts and then laughing at the antics of a 16 year old character named Todd. I found it hard to put the book down, I totally absorbed every page as it is such an enjoyable, good read. The other character personalities became so real and warm that I could actually visualize the surroundings and their faces. This is a cast of characters that I could easily watch in a movie of the book.

    This is a book that would leave you no boredom in reading. I know that down the track I will read this again and again.

    The author Liz Byrski has truly written such a beautiful, Australian story with warm characters. I will certainly be reading more of her books. I highly recommend reading this book. It touches your heart strings.

  4. I loved In the Company of Strangers. It’s a great book full of wonderful characters.

    Ruby, approaching 70 and living in London, inherits a controlling interest in Benson’s Reach, a Margaret River Lavender farm, from her estranged childhood friend Catherine.
    Duncan, Catherine’s 40 year old nephew and lacking direction in life, inherits the remaining share.
    Alice, 50, Duncan’s troubled friend who has just been released from prison.
    Lesley, in her 60s is finding life with her recently retired husband and is reassessing her life.
    Todd, the young boy from a troubled home who Catherine employed and took under her wing.
    Paula the interfering and difficult cleaner who has issues of her own.
    And Catherine whose spirit and influence pervade the book.
    All these characters with their interesting back stories come together at Benson’s Reach and in the process of restoring the business, which declined during Catherine’s illness, gain purpose, healing and new understanding than enable them to move forward in their lives.

    In a Company of Strangers is about what strangers can teach you about yourself, about life after 50 and about friendships that begin later in life.

    I would highly recommend this book as a great read and now have three more Liz Byrski books that I picked up from the library on Saturday on my shelves ready to read.

  5. In the Company of Strangers will leave you feeling as though you have met a group of people that will be with you for life.
    It’s a beautifully woven tale about trust, faith in each other, hope, love, life, death, family and friendship.
    We meet a group of people who are brought together by the death of Cat. Cat has left her property of Benson’s Reach to two people and its now time for them to go to Benson’s Reach and when they do they learn more about Cat and each other.
    There is Ruby who is Cat’s oldest friend who has survived hardships and heartaches but is such a strong person. She has been left 51% of Benson’s Reach
    Declan is Cat’s nephew and has had a troubled past with alcohol he has been left 49% of Benson’s Reach.
    Alice has just been released from prison and her only friend is Declan and he asks her to join him at Benson’s Reach.
    Lesley has come to stay at Benson’s Reach for a break from her husband. He has retired and is driving her mad so she needs to find herself again.
    Todd is 15 when the story first begins and has an alcoholic mother who has left him to go to Bali with her boyfriend. Cat had taken Todd in and made him a part of her life and like famly.
    Paula is obsessed with Kylie Minogue and likes to know everything that is going on. She’s very annoying but wouldn’t hurt anyone.
    Fleur is the maker of all the lotions made from lavender she has a small but consistant part in the story.
    Each person’s story is told in a ‘sharing’ way and this makes you feel as if bit by bit you are getting to know everyone and why they are where they are today.
    As well as a beautiful story there is also an inner story about the war children that were taken from England and brought out here. It tells small pieces of how they were treated and many times lied to.
    It’s a story about courage and finding the inner person inside us all and how sometimes ‘It can be someone you don’t know , who lets you know yourself’…
    There is heartache and laughter and a wonderful way to show that you don’t have to be blood to be a family.

  6. I wanted to read this novel partly because it sounded unlike something I’d pick up in a shop, and I wanted to know whether that would have been the right decision. It wouldn’t; this was a really engrossing novel and I’m very pleased I read it.

    The first few chapters were a little awkward, I thought. They took turns setting up the main characters and the crisis or dreadful secret that brought each character to Benson’s Reach. It was a bit blatant and I was worried the whole novel was going to be a bit superficial. However, within a few pages of the story proper starting, Byrski had me fully involved with her characters. This isn’t a hugely dramatic story; it is an extremely human one with strong, interesting, empathetic characters. Even if you can’t empathise with exactly the situation a character finds themself in, you’ll likely empathise with their feelings, worries, and reactions. This is what kept me reading and left me wanting to know more about what happened to each character. Once started, this was quite a fast moving novel which was quite difficult to put down.

    I liked the fact that although the novel didn’t sugar coat some of the challenges of life – including negotiating changes in relationships, ageing, and family conflict – it was ultimately quite a hopeful novel. Byrski didn’t offer her characters easy solutions, but she does offer the hope that change is possible and often quite positive. It was a nice attitude that permeated the novel and (in the end) many of the characters.

    I’d recommend this novel really strongly to anyone who’s interested in characters facing real dilemmas, although perhaps they’re a little heightened for the purposes of this novel. The writing style is enjoyable – easy to read and engaging. “In the Company of Strangers” will probably appeal to a lot of people like me who wouldn’t automatically expect to find it their cup of tea. It won me over quickly and as I said, I’m very glad I read it. It was enjoyable and a nice positive hopeful take on life changes.

  7. I had a little bit of a struggle getting into this book as there are so many differant characters that need to be learned about and then have linked together but once their lives started to link together I became engrossed.
    This book tells the story of various differant people all facing their own personal challenges. Bensons Reach is the setting and has been left to Ruby and Declan.
    Ruby was a child migrant from England who later left Australia and returned to England. She left her friend Catherine behind in Australia. Catherine was also a child migrant. Ruby had always promised to visit Catherine.
    Declan is Catherine’s Nephew who despite his battles in the past with alcohol and drugs, Catherine held in high esteem.
    Both Ruby and Declan had both made promises to return to Bensons Reach but both delayed and have then been thrown in the deep in when Catherine passes away and together they must now learn the ins and outs of the business and how to make it work.
    I actually loved how the other characters link in and the story forms.
    This book holds many messages such as how its not very wise to delay those visits to loved ones, those that truely love is will always overlook our flaws and love us regardless, everyone has a story and out of negative a positive will form.
    I loved this book and once i worked out how all these differant people linked together i found that the story was a journey of positivity.
    A wonderful book for a Spring weekend Read.

  8. As a senior woman myself I found I could really relate to the ageing factors presented so sensitively and caringly by the author. Love, tolerance, acceptance, respect and sense of belonging, the willingness to support others in their efforts at soul searching, resilience and forgiveness are all so richly developed through the main characters.Each character has his/her own painful life story but in the company of strangers, who become the dearest of friends, this pain of the past is explored and each character finds a freedom to live life anew. For me, heading down the path to old age can be daunting, especially if one is alone with the burdens of the past. Research has shown that one of the most important factors for aging positively is a strong social support system and I thought the story to be a wonderful example of this. Elderly people still may want to have intimacy, to be useful and to have the chance to give wisdom gained from a wealth of life experience- as the author has so aptly presented through the story line. Altogether very inspiring and realistic and I will recommend the book to my friends. Would love to meet these people in real life!!!

  9. In The Company Of Strangers is a great book to start reading when you want to engroososs yourself in the story line and characters of a book , not a quick one night and your finished novel. I think it draws you in with the lovely look of the book with the beautiful colours of the cover.
    The first few chapters of this novel do take some time to get in to , as there are many characters that we need to meet and learn their stories.
    Ruby and Declan are the “main” characters of this story but there are many others that intertwine with their lives and their stories that makes this book delve into so many different issues including alcholism,relationships, ageing and child migration from England , just to name a few . It all ties in very nicely and I warmed up to the characters and the portrayal of their lives very quickly.
    I believe this novel is about facing life’s challenges , no matter what it throws at us good or bad , and learning that we are all able to change our lives .
    Over all I found In the Company Of Strangers to be a very engrossing book once you learn the stories of the characters and would recommend it to anyone for a great Spring read

  10. Since reading and reviewing In the Company of Strangers I have read four more books by Liz Byrski – Bad Behaviour, Gang of Four, Trip of a Lifetime and Last Chance Cafe – and have loved them all.
    Thank you Beauty and Lace for giving me the opportunity to review In the Company of Strangers and introducing me to this wonderful author.

  11. This is still one of my all time favourite books. I’ve since read just about all of Liz Byrski’s work and just admire her ad her work so much. I’d love a sequel to this but anything Liz does is wonderful, in my opinion. She also answers emails!!! So good to have such a wonderful Australian author giving so much to the community as a whole.

    I’ll be forever thankful that I ‘discovered” Liz Byrski through Beauty and Lace. Thanks so much.

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