Title: The Coast
Author: Eleanor Limprecht
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Allen and Unwin
Published: 31st May 2022
Synopsis: A stunning novel of love and courage by the bestselling author of The Passengers.
Alice is only nine years old in 1910 when she is sent to the feared Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney, a veritable prison where more patients are admitted than will ever leave. She is told that she’s visiting her mother, who disappeared one day when Alice was two. Once there, Alice learns her mother is suffering from leprosy and that she has the same disease.
As she grows up, the secluded refuge of the lazaret becomes Alice’s entire world, her mother and the other patients and medical staff her only human contact. The patients have access to a private sandstone-edged beach, their own rowboat, a piano and a library of books, but Alice is tired of the smallness of her life and is thrilled by the thought of the outside world. It is only when Guy, a Yuwaalaraay man wounded in World War I, arrives at The Coast, that Alice begins to experience what she has yearned for, as they become friends and then something deeper.
Filled with vivid descriptions of the wild beauty of the sea cliffs and beaches surrounding the harsh isolation of the lazaret, and written in evocative prose, The Coast is meticulously researched historical fiction that holds a mirror to the present day. Heartbreaking and soul-lifting, it is a universal story of love, courage, sacrifice and resilience.
Alice is amongst many people who have leprosy, relegated to a leper colony, or lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney, and she’s seeing her mother for the first time in years. Here, Alice learns that she will likely never leave. For many years, Alice only has her mother for comfort, until she meets Guy, a Yulwaalaraay man injured in World Wae One, and he brings something new into her life – something she has never felt before. But what will it mean for Alice, as she lives a life of isolation amidst misconceptions about some diseases and the medical understandings that determine which patients are free and which patients are prisoners until they die – a life of complete isolation and separation from family in a time when leprosy could and did bring shame on families – and Alice and her mother had to be separated from them for good. Set against the backdrop of the early twentieth century, war, and an earlier pandemic, The Coast reflects on ideas of isolation, and the role that epidemiology played in working out how to treat diseases in Australia.
It also plays with the idea of race and nationality – that disease must come from those who come from afar – at least, that’s what several of the characters believe, and seem happy to blame those with less agency than the white people in the book, and looking at various intersections of discrimination and what it meant to be a certain race, or gender, or afflicted by various illnesses in those times. Eleanor also cleverly took us back and forth into the pasts of Guy and Alice’s mother, leading up to what took them to the lazaret, which grounded the story and gave it a deep understanding of the conditions, issues, and attitudes that they all faced on different levels. What I liked was the way Alice and Guy connected – the things that mattered to others like his race didn’t matter to her, and I loved their growing relationship, because it allowed them a small sliver of hope in the dark place they were in.
The tragedy in this novel is in the capacity of everyone to care or not care – for some of the doctors to be so kind that it is heartbreaking, because you know what they are doing is all they can do. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and reminds you that nobody is immune to disease – that illness, disability, needing care – can strike us all at any time, and in a way, the isolation and nature of quarantining these leprosy patients is similar to how we have worked during the current pandemic, and illustrates that isolation can have detrimental affects on humans, as well as highlighting something in Australia’s history that until I read this book, I was unaware of. It highlights that there are always stories that we are not told or that we know about. Hopefully stories like this remind us that there are humane ways to deal with illness and disability, without shutting those people away from the rest of society forever. It is a heartbreaking and devastating story, with a glimmer of hope here and there throughout, allowing the characters to seek for something better.