Title: The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club
Author: Sophie Green
Publisher: Hachette Australia
Published: 8th August, 2017
Price: Paperback – $29.99, Ebook – $12.99, Audiobook – $44.99
Synopsis: In 1978 the Northern Territory has begun to self-govern. Cyclone Tracy is a recent memory and telephones not yet a fixture on the cattle stations dominating the rugged outback. Life is hard and people are isolated. But they find ways to connect. Sybil is the matriarch of Fairvale Station, run by her husband, Joe. Their eldest son, Lachlan, was Joe’s designated successor but he has left the Territory – for good. It is up to their second son, Ben, to take his brother’s place. But that doesn’t stop Sybil grieving the absence of her child. With her oldest friend, Rita, now living in Alice Springs and working for the Royal Flying Doctor Service, and Ben’s English wife, Kate, finding it difficult to adjust to life at Fairvale, Sybil comes up with a way to give them all companionship and purpose: they all love to read, and she forms a book club. Mother-of-three Sallyanne is invited to join them. Sallyanne dreams of a life far removed from the dusty town of Katherine where she lives with her difficult husband, Mick. Completing the group is Della, who left Texas for Australia looking for adventure and work on the land.
If you loved THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY, THE LITTLE COFFEE SHOP OF KABUL and THE THORN BIRDS you will devour this story of five different women united by one need: to overcome the vast distances of Australia’s Top End with friendship, tears, laughter, books and love.
The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Bookc Club begins in 1978 and ends in 1981, each year beginning with a list of significant national and international events in each year. The novel first introduces the reader to the five women that will make up the book club: Sybil Baxter, her good friend, Rita, daughter-in-law, Kate, Della, who works as a stock hand on a neighbouring property, Ghost River, and who has moved over from Texas for adventure, and mother of three, Sallyanne, looking for a way to connect with people and struggling with her husband at home. Sybil’s idea for the book club springs from a desire to talk and connect, and her desire to find Kate friends in this new and harsh environment the young English woman finds herself in. And so, the idea for the book club is formed, and she goes in search of other members besides her, Kate and Rita. A chance meeting at the local CWA meeting in Katherine with Sallyanne, mother of three, and looking for connections, brings the women together to form the book club, and with the addition of Della from Ghost River, they embark on a journey of friendship, forming relationships and connections that give them the strength to face the challenges that life and living in the Territory throw at them. From the death to love found, love lost and even just finding your own strength, this book is about the bonds of family and friendship, and how these can be tested, and how far someone will go before they find themselves having to make what feels like an impossible choice.
Each character’s sense of self and individuality sings through the pages, especially in the chapters told from their perspective. Sybil, the Fairvale matriarch, challenged by the farm and the son who ran away and wants nothing to do with his family, soldiers on through the wet and dry seasons, pushing onwards through tragedy and always at hand to listen to her friends and family, with a cup of tea and keen ear. Rita, her friend and nurse with the Royal Flying Doctor’s Service is unmarried, without children and dedicated to her career – aspects of her character that suit her, the time but also, are in stark contrast to the way the women in the book club have been brought up in their respective families – the expectation of marriage and family has not been something that Rita has aimed for. In this way, she contrasts with Sybil, who is married with grown children, but who is also a woman of the land, who can hold her own in many ways, but must learn how to run Fairvale following a tragedy.
The trio of younger women couldn’t be more different: Della from Texas, who dreams of adventure, and isn’t expecting an invitation to join a book club, nor does she expect to fall in love with Stan, who works on Fairvale. Kate, Ben’s wife from England, wasn’t prepared for the harsh life of the Northern Territory, but longs for a child, and company, and the book club brings her closer to a few of the women around whose friendship will never die. Finally, mother of three, Sallyanne, stuck in a world of children and a difficult husband, is welcomed into the book club. A romantic at heart, longing for the type of love that they read about, begins to come out of her shell and finds her own strength with the help of Rita and the others.
Each character faces a tragedy of sorts in the book that tests their strength and passion, and the crux of who they are. Whatever these tragedies are, the Fairvale women come out stronger and closer than they were before. Through reading the books, a variety of Australian classics and one or two from America and England, that were readily available at the time, and the discussion of these books is what eventually leads to the bonds the women form that can never be broken. The books Sophie Green’s characters read are:
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford
Picnic At Hanging Rock by Joan Lindsay
The Far Pavilions by MM Kaye
The Harp in the South by Ruth Parks
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin
A Woman of Substance by Barbara Taylor Bradford
Sophie Green’s novel gives these women a voice – each very different, but reading it, I could hear Della’s voice just as clearly as the Australian ones, and Sophie uses dialect and language that each character would use to ensure the strength of these characters. Within Fairvale, there are Aboriginal workers, and their struggles against racism and falling in love with a white girl are shown, and dealt with eloquently – highlighting that just because racial and gender equality laws were brought into being during these years and the years that preceded them and followed, issues of racism, for example, have not completely vanished from our world. Stan and Ruby, who work in the kitchen, are wonderful characters, whom I came to adore and wish I knew. Like the book club women, they had such big hearts that they opened up to Della and Kate, and the other women. I think this was all done well, and written to suit the attitudes of the time that still prevailed, and at times, even today, still do. But these weren’t the focus of the book, and at least gave some context to the setting and characters. It allowed the Territory to become a character through the wet and dry seasons, and the people who lived on the land and shared it, working together for their families. I think the ending was realistic – with each member finding their own path and new life, where some aspects were left open ended, so it was probably more of a hopeful ending than a happy one.
It is a book I enjoyed reading, and one I would like to revisit. The power in this is the way gender and race expectations are turned on their head, and the few that act superior based on race or gender, or both, are called out, but the hurt is still there, the scars are still there. It gives, I think, a realistic approach to the relationships the characters are in, whether it is family, friends or love, and through reading the books, which is the focus and backbone of the novel, and therefore is something that I think many readers who enjoy this kind of book will be able to relate to.