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. 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.

  2. 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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