Book Club: To Love A Sunburnt Country

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Author: Jackie French
ISBN: 978-0-7322-9723-7
RRP: $29.99

Jackie French is a prolific Australian author who has written books over many genres and her latest is To Love A Sunburnt Country, an historical fiction set in WWII. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I discovered it is the fourth in a series so I can assure you that this book convincingly stands alone.


The Matilda Saga begins in 1894 with A Waltz for Matilda and takes inspiration from a well know Banjo Paterson poem as well as actual historical events. To Love A Sunburnt Country is the fourth in the series and is set in the midst of World War II.

Sixteen year old Nancy is in Malaya at the close of 1941 to help her sister-in-law with her baby nephew and convince her to return to the family property in Australia, unfortunately it is also right about the time the Japanese Army ups the ante and starts making progress no-one thought possible.

To Love A Sunburnt Country is a fictional novel based on true events and little-known people which just leaves me wondering how much of it is true.

I am the first to admit that my knowledge of our history is not what it should be, I paid not enough attention in school and have not retained what little I did learn. Some of the names are familiar to me but I can’t remember their stories. An historical novel based on real people and events has engaged me in the history of our country, and from what I can remember showed it from a different perspective too.

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The story is told from the point of view of all the main characters in alternating chapters which gives us an all encompassing look at what’s happening in Malaya, in Australia, for civilians and those in the military. French has used letters and stories from the local newspaper as tools to add depth to the story and bring those outside of the action a little closer to the narrative.

The world has changed a lot since the second world war, to think about the life of Nancy at 16 and compare it to my 16 year old self – I just can’t imagine it, even comparing her life before the war I can’t comprehend. She has been away droving and travelled to Malaya on her own, where she is now living with her sister-in-law and baby nephew.

Nancy is itching to return home to Overflow and is hoping that she can finally convince Moira that it is time, they need to travel before it becomes too unsafe.

To Love A Sunburnt Country tells a story of Australia from 1941 until 1946, the struggles of the families left behind to carry on and keep the country moving and the desperate conditions faced by those unfortunate enough to find themselves in Japanese prison camps. French explored the use of propaganda by both sides to paint a picture that had very little to do with the reality.

Nancy has the Overflow in her blood, she is very much at one with the land so finds it difficult to keep up appearances. Having grown up on the land her priorities were very different from those of the British ladies in her sister-in-laws social circle. Her time on the land has also darkened her already dark skin, Nancy has Aboriginal heritage and French explores the racial element through Nancy’s eyes.

A love of country drives all of the characters in this book, and what they will do in the name of their country, for their country and to get back to their country is at turns both disturbing and inspirational.

The storytelling is gripping and the landscape is vividly drawn. French’s characters leap from the page and draw you into their struggles. This is far from a light summer beach read but it is certainly well worth the read and will leave you giving thanks to the Australians that came before us and fought for the lives we are able to live today.

Jackie French is a fabulous storyteller and one I will be sure to keep an eye out for. I am interested, at some point, to go back and read the rest of The Matilda Saga. I will also be on the lookout for any forthcoming volumes in the saga.

A selection of our lucky readers will be reading To Love A Sunburnt Country as part of the Beauty and Lace Book Club so I will be interested to see what they have to say about the book.

Please be advised that there may be spoilers contained in the comments below.

29 thoughts on “Book Club: To Love A Sunburnt Country

  1. I am a real bookworm and enjoy reading all types of stories, true or fiction. Many books are in part educational even though you may not realise it while reading them. I often read instead of watching TV. I save my books and hand them on to the young ones as they become ago appropriate.

  2. Would love to read this book a shame I didn’t know about the other three, as I’m off to hospital and going to be out of action for a couple of months , I mostly read ,si fi , and Historical romance, so very interested and the story line sounds as though it might just be enough to stop me thinking about myself and give me something else to think about

    1. Chris I am sure you could source them from your local library.
      They are
      A Waltz for Matilda
      The Girl from Snowy River
      The Road to Gundagai.

      Good luck with your trip to hospital 🙂

  3. I love Jackie French’s work. I particularly admire the way she can go from something as gorgeous as Diary of a Wombat – the most delightful picture book set for young ones, to wonderful Historical Australian fiction. Her research is as good as it gets. I’d love to read and review this particular novel.

  4. Wow. sounds like an interesting read, I am really starting to embrace Australian Authors thanks to Rachel Johns.

  5. I was born in the UK and emigrated when I was 6. I love to read about Australian history as I too did not listen enough in school and love to envisage the “sunburnt country” as it was back then.

  6. I am an avid reader, born at the end of WW11. Much of the history of that time I learnt orally as family stories, although I did not realise it at the time. I. love reading Australian fiction and mystery. From frank Hardy, Di Morrisey, Jackie French, Kate Greenwood to Rachel Johns.
    I was unaware of this series and would love to start with this one, then look at the others

  7. This book really intrigued me, one because of the author (I am more familliar with her childrens books) and two the content as I spent 7 years travelling back and forth to indonesia as a child, and am familliar with the attrocities associated with WW2 in that part of the world.

    This book was well written, and I loved how the author managed to entwine different aspects of life in WW2 into the story. This story plucked solidly at my heart strings and more than a few tears escaped on reading about the losses and the cruelties endured.

    The way this book is written, illustrates the difficulties of life during the war at both home and away, and provided an insight into Australia’s part in the war. I also loved the way that she utilised some of her characters to illustrate the scars that were still so fresh from WW1.

    Over all, a great read, but I advise a bucket of tissues on hand, and plenty of time, as I found it impossible to put down. I read this book in about 3 days.

    My question to Jackie is: where was the inspiration for her characters and the story drawn from?

  8. Due to having to go in for an operation I have had to read this book before Monday the 2nd……..which wasn’t hard as I found I couldn’t put it down for very long.

    I have only read a couple of books by Jackie French before but was interested in reading this particular fiction story as it was about World War II. I have heard many interesting stories about the Japanese during the war by my late dad who was very involved in his Army division. Jackie has captured the story very true to form of what did happen over there.

    It’s a mammoth book of 464 pages and the cover is beautifully pictured of a young girl’s face over a sunburnt country.

    Most of the story centres around Nancy Clancy who at age 16 left school to spend a year of droving because she simply just loved the land as did her grandfather who was famed as being Clancy of the Overflow. We follow the years of 1941 to 1946.

    Her parents then sent Nancy over to Malaya to bring back their son’s British wife Moira and baby named Gavin. They had never had the pleasure of meeting both of them. Nancy’s brother Ben was a soldier in the army. It was a struggle for Nancy to actually get Moira to return to Australia as she wanted to remain at their plantation house for when Ben returned. As a wife and mother she felt it was her duty to stay. With Malaya under threat from the Japanese, Nancy had to take charge. They boarded a train to Kuala Lumpur and then they would proceed to Singapore where they would sail out for home in Australia.

    Their life on the ship was horrendous and when the ship is bombed, their story really begins.

    Stranded on an island with other women captured by Japanese and put in a prison camp with the most horrendous conditions to live in. The camaraderie amongst the women is a beautiful read. Reading what they went through can be visualised as you read. You become one of the women there as you read on.

    Throughout the book we also learn of other endearing characters that are somehow woven together to make this novel so captivating.

    At the start of each chapter, we are given a verse out of the Australian local newspaper called “The Gazette from Gibbers Creek.” There are also letters to loved ones during the war and I found these were depicted true to form as my own father used to tell me about letter writing to loved ones. This book really relates well to the tragedies and reality of war.

    I warmed to Nancy, her sister in law Moira and her baby Gavin straight away. I actually loved watching Gavin grow from a baby to a toddler. He had a hard life but he really knew of no other. The other women that are in the prison camp with them also are all very much loved.

    On reading about Nancy, I thought she appeared older than what she actually was. Her strength is amazing.

    Nowhere in this book did my mind waver. It’s such a compelling, powerful, captivating story that I could not stop reading and was able to read it in 1 ½ days. There were times that I would smile but there are times that I found myself crying and getting emotional when reading. The story really impacts your life and all the characters become endearing to you. The book really shows and tells us what did happen in the war. It is horrible to just even think what happened but to actually read what they did go through, is very painful.

    It is only now at the end of the book that I see that this is the 4th in the Matilda Saga. I would never have known there was others like this so my interest will be in reading 1 to 3 now also. Jackie French has done a brillant story for everyone to read. This book is well worth the read. Would highly recommend.

    Thank you to B&L for giving me the chance to read this book. Thoroughly enjoyed.

    A word of warning……a box of tissues definitely needed.

    Without giving anything away from the book I would love to ask Jackie why as to a certain character (was never expecting that) and did she find it hard writing what happened.

    1. sorry pressed the wrong button, as I was saying the book is superbly written by Jackie French we all must remember the horrors suffered by soldiers and the civilians who are caught up in any war, Nancy was so brave and wise beyond her years and what happened to poor Gavin I never saw that coming this book was hard to put down been a long time since a book has drawn me in like this book
      Question to Jackie
      Did you do much research on the war before you wrote this book

      1. The book is based on real people, and each even is based on real events too. In a sense I have been researching it since i was three years old. There is more on my web site, and in the newsletters too, about the people and incidents the book is based on.
        And for the incident mentioned by an earlier reader : I had to write it before I began to write the book, n an implies: a friend rang to say she’d be an hour late and so i wrote was was an essential scene, to capture so much that is lost in war, but one that I have not been able to bear to era again, having written it. All the vey best indeed, Jackie french

        1. I just want to thank Jackie for this book…….it’s been just on 4 weeks since I read it and I am still thinking about the characters of the book. They all seemed so real. Personally, I would love to see this made into a movie. 🙂

  9. I have never read a book by Jackie French but after reading this book I am a fan. Loved the story, couldn’t put the book down. Had a lot of mixed emotions as I read each character & how they evolved & how they each individually coped throughout the war time. Such maturity by Nancy and William & their immediate love for each other at a young age. Separated by geographics and war as each family also suffered loss and sadness. Nancy was a brave young lady, mature beyond her years and able to help others survive the harsh realities of war. A light hearted character in Gavin who made the ladies, who were war prisoners, days liveable & manageable. Why did he have to die? So sad! Jackie, I know you have captured the heart of many in this book which I believe is very realistic to the happenings. I will read this book again after I have recovered from the sadness of the story. Yes I cried, cried for the characters who died, their families and in particular for Nancy. I would love a follow up novel of how the families, Nancy and William recovered.

    1. I have just finished the sequel, and it will be released on December 1. Although it is set twenty years later, and has another heroine, Nancy is a major character in this one too, as are Michael, Dr McAlpine, Moira, and especially Fred. You also find out what happened to Mrs Hugendorn and Nurse Rogers.
      There will be another book after this in the series, and Nancy will be a major character in that one, too.

  10. To Love A Sunburnt Country is an enthralling book! I read it cover to cover (even going back and re-reading sections) in just over a day. I am interested in Australian History and this book ticked all the boxes.
    I loved the fact that Jackie French has researched various things from WW11 and has included poems, letters and Newspaper extracts. These give an insight into the daily life of the loved ones left behind when the men went off to war.
    Life in a POW Camp was horrific and knowing a little of the atrocities that occurred by the Japanese in SE Asia-Thailand/Burma Railway, Singapore and Paupa New Guinea, I can see that some of the scenarios were played down-not all of them.
    The story of a 16 year old part-aboriginal girl and her travels with the bigotry she sees is heart wrentching. I love the inner strength Nancy has and the hardships she goes through trying to return to the land of her heart.
    I don’t want to give away anything to the ones who haven’t read this book but I will say I thoroughly enjoyed it and will definitely be looking for the first 3 books of the Series that I didn’t know were out there.
    Thanks B&L for letting me be a part of this 🙂

    1. I would like to ask Jackie French about the research she did for this book, the Newspaper, Letters and Poetry, how hard was it to condense to what she used. I could imagine it would have been hard to try not to ‘overload’ the beginning of each chapter.

  11. I have just finished reading ‘To Love A Sunburnt Country’, and although books about war aren’t usually the genre I would read, I did enjoy this book.
    I loved the character of Nancy (though must admit I didn’t like her name: Nancy Clancy.) Even though in the book it states why she was given that name, I couldn’t bring myself to like it. I much preferred “Nancy Of the Overflow.”
    I also loved the characters Gavin, Michael, Mah, and although at first I didn’t take to Moira, by the end of the book, she had won me over!
    Anyway, the story itself was told very well, the author’s writing style was very interesting and told with great heart.
    It is quite sad in parts; confronting and disturbing but honest and accurate of those times in the war.
    I loved the author’s descriptions of the land and surrounds, and could really picture it in my mind.
    For those who enjoy war novels, then this would really be suitable and enjoyable. The struggles the characters faced were encapsulated very well.
    Overall, I would say that it is a good read, not a great one, but that is just my honest opinion, and I found it a little long in parts to keep my attention, but the characters and descriptions certainly made it interesting enough to read right through.

  12. Oh My, Jackie French. I have found my second most favourite book of Australian Drama. Next to Thorn Birds of course!

    I have no words…I cried,laughed and immersed myself into the book. Brilliant, just Brilliant!!

  13. I had a love-hate relationship with this book. It was superbly written and purely on that fact I found it hard to put down. I loved how detailed it was (and also hated that it was so detailed as you really understood what was happening and what the characters were going through. It was moving, gripping and definitely a book which was hard to put down.

    It is not the kind of book that I would have normally picked up to read, but I am so much richer for having read it. I particularly liked the personal touches of the newspapers and letters etc. It added to the authenticity of the story.

    All in all its a fantastic book to read, just be prepared for the roller coaster!

  14. Thank you Beauty & Lace for the opportunity to read “To Love A Sunburnt Country” by Jackie French. You have introduced me to this Author as this is the first book I’ve read of hers. I did some research on this book and I read that this story is actually the fourth book in a “Matilda – saga” series for this Author. After reading this book, I definitely want to read the first three stories. I think what’s piqued my interest so much is wanting to read how she has related characters from Banjo Patterson’s poems into her stories, so these people we’ve grown up with in words ‘get a life’ and we get to know what it is. I find that intriguing.
    I found this book so easy to read from the moment I picked it up and if it wasn’t for migraines and eye-strain I probably would’ve had it read in 3-4 days. Jackie French has a very easy-to-read writing style.
    The story “To Love A Sunburnt Country” is based on Banjo Patterson’s poem “Clancy of the Overflow”. Nancy, the central character is the granddaughter of Clancy. The story is set in a NSW town of Gibber’s Creek (a fictional town where all four of the books are set). Nancy Clancy or Nancy of the Overflow is a 16 year old girl living in a small Australian town, independent and capable for her age. Jackie French tells the story of what life would’ve been like during WW11 (1941-1946) in Australia.
    After Nancy has been droving for a year in the outback, she is sent to Malaya where her brother, Ben, and his wife Moira, and their baby Gavin are living. But soon after Ben joins the Army and leaves to fight in the war. Things turn bad and the Japanese are threatening to invade Malaya, Nancy has to try and get Moira and the baby back to Australia. Nancy finds their way to a ship but the ship is bombed by the Japanese…..it is from this point on, the story takes many twists and turns, some parts so heart-wrenching, I was left a sobbing mess.
    I think even my Dad would love to read this. He was transferred to Malaya/Malaysia in 1966 with the RAAF, with my Mum and I was born over there in 1969. My Dad has always wanted to take me back. But he loves the RAAF still and reads anything to do with war, so I think he would relate to this story. I have never been into war stories but this is a different war story altogether. I love Jackie’s use of letters and newspaper clippings from the period, and her history knowledge was amazing. I learnt so much.
    Nancy of the Overflow is my hero. She is so strong, mentally. I kept forgetting that she was just 16, I was picturing a 30 year old mature woman. I am hoping that Jackie will write a follow-up to this story…sometimes with books I read, I get so engrossed and involved with the characters that I feel everything they feel and when a story ends…I’m left with a terrible need to find out what happens after…..I would recommend this book to everyone. So easy to read, you will learn something from it and you will not be able to put it down.
    Jackie French you are a wonderful writer!
    🙂

  15. A magnificent story, I am sadly not as up to date as I should be on history but this book gave an insight into the atrocities of war and how hero’s are made. This is the first book I have read of Jackie French’s and it won’t be the last! I do admit it was a little slow to start with but when it did start, it was very hard to put down. This author had the ability to make you feel like you were there some if the scenes were very lifelike, especially when Nancy caught the meat in the camp. I think this authors style will appeal to a broad audience it has a bit of everything, romance, heartache, sadness and war….. But most of all it felt like you were there with the characters, that is a skill for an author to harness well done, I will be buying your other books! Thanks for the opportunity to read an review.

  16. Thank you for the chance to read this book.

    I remember watching Jackie’s garden segment on Burke’s Backyard and who hasn’t got Diary of a Wombat in their bookshelf.
    I have read a few books by Jackie yet had not read anything as powerful as this.

    Starting with a day and working back through a few years by looking at letters and memories was a wonderful way that the reader gets an amazing background and knowledge of the characters.
    This book is not the first in the series but I can be read as if it was.
    There was nothing missing from the story line that had you thinking that you needed to read the other books first.

    Reading a book by Jackie French is also getting a mini history lesson and I did find myself going ‘Oh, I didn’t know that’ at quite a few interesting parts. I do love a historical fiction book.

    This novel has it all a clever plot, characters you can relate to, historical moments that we can all learn from, excitement and romance.
    There are many references to Australian literature and events that we all know and love and many I had yet to learn more about.
    This is a cleverly written and thoroughly enjoyable yet heartbreaking story.

  17. I loved this book from the moment I opened it to page 1 until the end. I finished it within 2 days (some sleeping done!). It captured my imagination and it was written beautifully. Will be passing this book on to my Mum, so she can also read a fantastic story. Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this book.

  18. This was a wonderful book. Well, kind of; I ended it in floods of tears. But that’s because this was a genuinely moving, powerful book which emphasises a part of Australia’s history that hasn’t got much attention in fiction.

    I really loved the way French could have you empathising with two completely opposite points of view. Early on, when Nancy is trying to get Moira to evacuate, I was “run! You have a baby! Save him!” and then Moira said she wanted to stay in case there was any chance of seeing her husband again. And suddenly I was “ooh, yes, if that was my husband, I’d snatch any chance I could of seeing him…” French had me empathising with a whole range of people, some of whom held completely contrary points of view.
    And that’s ultimately why this was such a moving book – French quickly had me caring deeply about all the characters. I don’t think many people will be able to read this without feeling completely involved in their lives.

    The other particularly notable aspect of this novel for me was her depiction of love. Not always chocolates and roses, or even lust, but so very much about someone really seeing and knowing you. So very much about the good times and bad, the companionship, the deep sense of shared values. Again, I found this deeply moving and very realistic.

    I loved this book. I could go on about it for quite some time: the strong characters, the clearly drawn Australian setting, the historical accuracy, the humanity of so many of the stories. Since it’s set in World War II it isn’t much of a spoiler to say not everyone survives. Even guessing that much, it’s still gut wrenching in places. I have read quite a few of French’s novels, and have liked them all, but this is a level above them all – possibly the best thing she’s ever written.

  19. What a fantastic read, sorry for the delay in replying but have been on a cruise so took this with me. Mini history lesson and such drama and intrigue that once I started I couldn’t put it down. It was such an emotional well written book that I am going to have to read other works by Jackie French..

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