The Unforgiving City by Maggie Joel

the unforgiving city.jpgTitle: The Unforgiving City

Author: Maggie Joel

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 3rd September 2019

Format: Paperback

Pages: 425

Price: $29.99

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.

2019 BadgeShe’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.

Ruins by Rajith Savanadasa

*I received a copy of this from the publisher for review*

ruins .jpg

Title: Ruins

Author: Rajith Savanadasa

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Hachette

Published: 28th June 2016

Format: Paperback

Pages: 352

Price: $27.99

Synopsis: A country picking up the pieces, a family among the ruins.

 

In the restless streets, crowded waiting rooms and glittering nightclubs of Colombo, five family members find their bonds stretched to breaking point in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war.

Latha wants a home. Anoushka wants an iPod.

Mano hopes to win his wife back.

Lakshmi dreams of rescuing a lost boy.

And Niranjan needs big money so he can leave them all behind.

~*~

Ruins is a book unlike others I have read. Set in Sri Lanka, in Colombo, in the aftermath of the Sri Lankan civil war, shadows of war and threats to daily life still exist. Amidst these shadows, a family is slowly crumbling like the ruins around them. Latha, the servant, desires nothing more than a home, a place she can feel safe. Daughter Anoushka wants an iPod, and to be a modern girl, who doesn’t want to be too traditional. Her brother, Niranjan just wants to escape this world and make his life somewhere else, whilst their parents, Mano and Lakshmi, are preoccupied with the distance forming between them: Mano wants his wife back, and Lakshmi is worried about a lost boy, whose fate is unknown. Each point of view is told in first person, with each character being given a chapter where the reader can explore the world from their point of view throughout the novel. In doing so, the reader is able to understand how each member of the family is affected by the world and the decisions they make: nobody is perfect, they are all flawed – they are human.

The ancient and modern worlds collide: the traditions of class and race, and expectations of men and women of the old world that Mano, Lakshmi and Latha have been a part of collide with the rapidly changing world Anoushka and Niranjan are growing up in. The characters and their worlds are set on a course of collision as secrets are revealed, and a journey to an ancient city reveals prejudices and the family, rooted in the old and the new, begins to unravel.

 

Savanadasa has drawn on an historical event that may not be as well known as some in recent years. It opens up this world to the reader, and allows them to explore it without prejudice, in a way that they can start to explore this Sri Lankan world of Tamils and Sinhalas, of class, race and gender stereotypes and assumptions in a setting that is both confrontational, unapologetic but also, that shows that all humans are flawed, that all humans can have prejudice and that all humans can work together to combat this. Savandasa’s words have an authentic voice behind them – born in Sri Lanka, he knows this world, and can relate to it, and can relate to the modern world he now knows in Australia. Ruins arose from the QWC/Hachette Manuscript Development Program in 2014, and are Savandasa’s debut novel. He is a refreshingly diverse voice in Australian literature, and I look forward to his further works.