Title: The Unforgiving City
Author: Maggie Joel
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 3rd September 2019
Synopsis: Secrets and lies throw three lives into chaos in the last days of the nineteenth century.
Colonial Sydney in the final weeks of the nineteenth century: a city striving for union and nationhood but dogged by divisions so deep they threaten to derail, not just the Federation, but the colony itself. There are chasms opening too when a clandestine note reaches the wrong hands in the well-to-do household of aspiring politician Alasdair Dunlevy and his wife Eleanor. Below stairs, their maid Alice faces a desperate situation with her wayward sister.
Despite sharing a house, Eleanor, Alice and Alasdair are each alone in their torment and must each find some solution, but at what cost to themselves and those they love? Evocative, immediate and involving, this is the sweeping story of three people, their passions and ambitions, and the far-flung ripples their choices will cause.
Set in the final weeks and months of the nineteenth century and the Federation campaign, Australia is still a series of colonies, each run by its own government and without a common transport system. There are divisions amongst society, those that wish to Federate to unite the colonies, and those that wish to remain as colonies. Yet beyond the political issues of the suffragettes and Federation, there are secrets kept within one household in the colony. The Dunlevy household – headed up by Alasdair Dunlevy, is rocked by a note sent to his wife, Eleanor. Whilst Eleanor seeks to hide her secrets and uncover her husband’s, their maid, Alice, has her own secrets.
She’s trying to help her sister, Milli, who has debts to pay off, and is about to give birth. In her quest to save the child, the seemingly separate secrets they are trying to protect will inevitably collide – and the fates of these three people will remain unsure until the very last minute.
An historical fiction novel that is uniquely Australian, The Unforgiving City tells the story of the struggle to unite Australia as one country, and touching on more of the story than people might know – the struggles and opposition, and how the suffragist movement was anti-Federation – unless women got the vote – which might explain or help explain how women (white women) got the vote so soon after Federation.
Though there were many people involved in, or affected by, Federation in various ways, this book closely explores the lives of three people in particular – Alasdair and Eleanor Dunlevy and their maid Alice. It touches on the issues that affect other classes, Indigenous people, and others within the colonies, and follows Alasdair as he journeys across New South Wales as he works to convince the towns to vote yes to Federate.
Eleanor and Alice drive the majority of the narrative with their secrets, and Alasdair’s secrets are woven in and out as they forge towards a Federated nation. This story revolves around the relationships of family, and of the rich and poor, and the chasms between the poorest of the poor and those who serve the rich, in a cut-throat world where laws prohibit women from making their own decisions, and where desperate people will do desperate things to keep their secrets and get help where they need it.
There’s not a lot of romance in this book, which allows the story to have a different slant and focus that make it more powerful for me, because it is about survival in a city where what are now areas for the rich, were once the slums and dominion of the poor and those who have, according to the colonial society, fallen from grace. Maggie Joel cleverly writes each character as dealing with their secrets separately but at the same time, united in trying to keep these secrets that will eventually collide with tragic yet somewhat hopeful results, even if these results are not what should have happened for the individual characters.