Today is Australia Day, and I usually spend it quietly with books, often by an Australian author such as Kate Forsyth, Sulari Gentill, Anita Heiss, or Jackie French. Many of the Australian authors I enjoy are women authors, and their books genre blend and tell the stories of characters who may be forgotten or silenced, the invisible stories that history may have forgotten, such as Jackie French’s Matilda Saga, which begins in 1894 in book one, and by book seven, is in the 1970s. It deals with the silenced voices I mentioned before – the women and children left out of the record, or simply associated with a husband’s name, or the fictional daughter of the swaggie of Waltzing Matilda, whose imagined existence and therefore imagined erasure from the song by Banjo Paterson brings Matilda O’Halloran of the Matilda Saga to life.
Over the course of seventy years, the Matilda Saga tells the story of women’s rights, of wars – The Boer War, World War One, World War Two and Vietnam by book five The Ghost by the Billabong, which I am currently reading, those left behind on the home front, and the innocents whose lives are turned upside down. It tells of the inter-war period between World War One and The Great Depression, and how orphaned teenagers like Flinty McAlpine raised families, after injuring her back, and how Blue escaped a prison-like home to find her family, and how Nancy went to Malaya to get her sister-in-law home, and found herself trapped in a prisoner of war camp by the Japanese on a small island off Malaya. The most recent books focus on Jed Kelly, and as I’ve just started book five, I’m still getting to know her and her story, but she comes to Drinkwater – Matilda’s property – and the characters that link all the books together – to find out who her great-grandfather is. Jackie French weaves history and imagination together to create this world and those who worked behind the scenes and brings the forgotten stories to light – the women, the orphans, the Indigenous Australians whose voices are clear in these books. Each book can be read alone, however, reading them in order has helped me see all the connections and links.
Another Australian author I enjoy is Kate Forsyth. Her historical fiction stories also place the female character in the centre. My favourite is The Beast’s Garden, set in World War Two Germany, where Ava works to subvert Nazi power, whilst married to a Nazi, one whom she loves but at the same time fears, unsure of what he will do should he find out about her Jewish friends and their resistance, or her work against the Nazis. The power of a subversive voice not often heard in literature is what gave The Beast’s Garden it’s heart and power: we saw the impact of the Nazi regime through Ava’s eyes. What it did to her family, her friends, and what having a Spanish mother did to her, how it affected her as she lived with typically Aryan sisters. Even though this doesn’t tell the story of an Australian character, it is definitely one of my favourites.
I have only read one Anita Heiss book so far, and that was Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms, set in World War Two and told by an Indigenous narrator, Mary, who comes to care for the Japanese Prisoner of War her family is hiding. The book delves into various prejudices in the community at the time of war, and how they felt towards each other. As I read this, I had the question in the back of my mind: Did societal expectations drive the behaviour of some? The book dealt with the history nicely, and again, used voices not often heard in the history books to tell those experiences – perhaps something the history books need more of to have a rounded understanding of the war as a whole, even on the home front. Using silenced voices like Heiss, Forsyth and French have done makes the story more powerful, gives it more impact.
For a final Australian author I enjoy, I turn to Sulari Gentill, author of the Rowland Sinclair series. Rowland isn’t a silenced voice, but his adventures in crime solving, and his journeys to England, Nazi Germany , and his time between Sydney and Yass, artist Rowland Sinclair and his friends, fellow painter, Clyde, the sculptress, Edna, and Milt, the communist, Jewish poet, whose lines are all plagiarised from the well known poets, comprise a crime solving team that come to assist the police throughout the series. Poor Rowly has been shot, stabbed, beaten, and in a car accident, and has come through it all. He is an Australian gentleman. It is another fabulous series by a great Australian author.