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.

When The Lyre Bird Calls by Kim Kane

Title: When The Lyrebird Callslyrebird

Author: Kim Kane

Genre: Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 26/10/16

Format: Paperback

Pages: 320

Price: $16.99

Synopsis: A time-slip novel in which Madeleine finds herself transported back to 1900 Australia, where she befriends a family of girls and is witness to a family secret and a family tragedy.

When Madeleine is shipped off to stay with her eccentric grandmother for the holidays, she expects the usual: politics, early-morning yoga, extreme health food, and lots of hard work. Instead, Madeleine tumbles back in time to 1900, where the wealthy Williamson family takes her into their home, Lyrebird Muse.

At a time when young girls have no power and no voice, set against a backdrop of the struggles for emancipation, federation and Aboriginal rights, Madeleine must find a way to fit in with the Williamson family’s four sisters – beautiful, cold Bea; clever, awkward Gert; adventurous, rebellious Charlie; and darling baby Imo – as she searches desperately for a way home.

Meanwhile, the Williamson girls’ enchanting German cousin, Elfriede, arrives on the scene on a heavenly wave of smoke and cinnamon, and threatens to shatter everything…


When Madeleine is sent to Mum Crum’s for the holidays, she is unaware of what she will discover whilst she is there. While cleaning out a wardrobe, she discovers a hundred year old pair of elegant ball shoes that transport her back in time, to 1900, just months before the Federation of the Australian colonies, and during a time of racism, suffragettes and a difference in attitudes not only towards women, but to children as well. Upon her arrival in 1900, Madeleine is taken in by the Williamson girls: Bea, Gert, Charlie and little Imo, and learn to ensure she follows Nanny’s rules. Along with Gert, whom she tells she is from the future, she concocts a story for Gert’s parents and Nanny, and Aunt Hen, to ensure that she isn’t found out. Madeleine’s time with the Williamson’s is punctuated by a sojourn with Gert and Aunt Hen into Melbourne, and her modern day reactions to issues that were still in their infancy, or attitudes that were widely accepted, even if only because society expected such thinking, or people weren’t sure about speaking out.

When The Lyrebird Calls tells the story of a young nation, trying to find its identity amidst conflicts of tradition and the modern world, and a young girl who is seeing the history first hand through twenty-first century eyes. In reading about these issues in this setting through modern eyes and the reactions of other characters and the way they act or rather, don’t act in the face of diversity, tells volumes about how society has changed and what was perhaps expected or even assumed or taken for granted pre-Federation compared to today.

I found this book eye opening and it will help give younger readers an understanding of the early formation of our nation, of the suffragette movement and changing and expected attitudes towards women, children Indigenous people and even class divisions. It has an easy flow, making it easy to read and get through. Learning about the above issues in fiction can make the non-fiction easier to understand once a reader has a general idea of what to look for in research. Kim Kane has researched effectively, and given an interesting perspective on a time when lives were different, and restricted by class, gender and race to some extents, and where a middle ground might not always be found.