Title: Orphan Rock
Author: Dominique Wilson
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Transit Lounge
Published: 1st March 2022
Synopsis: Orphan Rock is a complex and richly detailed story of secrets and heartbreak that will take you from the back streets of Sydney’s slums to the wide avenues of the City of Lights.
The late 1800s was a time when women were meant to know their place. But when Bessie starts to work for Louisa Lawson at The Dawn, she comes to realise there’s more to a woman’s place than servitude to a husband.
Years later her daughter Kathleen flees to Paris to escape a secret she cannot accept. But World War One intervenes, exposing her to both the best and the worst of humanity.
Masterful and epic, this book is both a splendid evocation of early Sydney, and a truly powerful story about how women and minorities fought against being silenced.
Bessie’s life in an orphanage is about to change. The arrival of a man claiming to know her mother. He takes her away, and for the first time, Bessie has a family – except her mother, Mercy, isn’t quite what Bessie expected, and several years later, Bessie heads off to make her own life, getting married, having a child, and spending years in destitution before finding work with suffragist Louisa Lawson, and embarking on a new life, which brings her a daughter, Kathleen. Years later, Kathleen’s life is thrown into turmoil, and she runs away to Paris as the world descends into World War One and returns home during the war with a secret, to tragic news. Part one explores Bessie’s life from orphan to mother, and part two explores Kathleen’s life, and brings some of the themes in the earlier part full circle, and shows how women’s lives evolved and changed from the late 1800s and the days of the colonies, right into the first half of the 20th century, and what many women of the time experienced.
Orphan Rock takes the harsh realities of what Bessie and Kathleen went through, the changes they experienced, and the turbulent and ever-changing lives that they lived and deals with these events and characters sensitively, and at times, mirroring what we are dealing with in contemporary times through events, attitudes, and characters using subtle and poetic prose, effective dialogue, and a careful examination of the attitudes of the times, and the way people dealt with racism, sexism, and what happened when people dared to step out of the norm or speak out against what the majority seemed to believe at the time – much like today’s world, I suppose. Because those attitudes will always be present, and there will always be people who try to diminish people speaking out or be more vocal in their views and discrimination. People will always be silenced; people will always have to work to find their voice. This is what Orphan Rock does for its characters, and the way Dominique Wilson has explored the themes of discrimination and acceptance in the earlier decades and centuries of Australian society.
In the latter half, the White Australia Policy played a large part, especially as one of Bessie’s good friends was Chinese, and he was such a fantastic character, I kept hoping the friends could be reunited. Of course, the realities of the times had other ideas, but the hope was always there, because I have to say, I fell in love with Bao, Bessie and Lottie, and wanted them to become a family and stand together against discrimination in society. I also loved that Bessie was able to learn and grow throughout her story – she had certain ideas at the start but was able to change them and become her own person, much like Kathleen did as well. Both mother and daughter learnt about the best and the worst of humanity, and this shaped their futures and what they faced over the years. These experiences allowed them to become who they were, and to learn how to accept humanity and people for who they were, whilst going on their own journeys of healing throughout the novel.
Orphan Rock is complex even though it looks at a narrow set of characters – a family and those around them that become family as the novel and story evolves. It’s one that needs to be carefully considered and have the layers peeled back through close readings, as much of what is mentioned or referred to has an eerie similarity in today’s world, and the crescendo at the end reminds us that history repeats itself, that nobody is immune from heartbreak, yet at the same time, gives us hope that things will get better for those left behind. Orphan Rock amplifies the voices of those often ignored in the historical record and gives them a chance for their stories and experiences which makes for a rich story, and rich contribution to Australia’s historical fiction tradition.
An intriguing and thoughtful book.