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THE SECRET WORLD OF CONNIE STARR by ROBBI NEAL

I was among those fortunate enough to be given such an early copy of this book, it was before ARCs were even available. The downside to this was I’ve had to sit on my excitement about what an absolute stellar of a read it is until now.

The Secret World of Connie Starr is a whimsical, beautiful work of historical fiction, set in Ballarat during World War II and a decade or so beyond. It centres on the Starr family, the Baptist minister and head of the family, Joseph, his younger, second wife, Flora, three children from his first marriage and then the youngest child – Joseph’s and Flora’s only child – Connie. From the moment she is born, Connie is marked as different – not so much physically – it’s her way of perceiving the world that marks her out as extraordinary. For Connie experiences life as a never-ending battle between forces of good, evil, daring and cowardice, truth and lies, yet when she tries to explain this to her friends and family, she is blithely dismissed, feared, bullied or her unique way of seeing things is exploited.

As daily life goes on around Connie and the years pass and people come and go, she observes those who enter and depart, most often from the branches of her beloved lemon tree. Beyond Connie’s gaze, however, the reader is given insight into what happens behind the closed doors of not just the Starr family, but others in their tight-knit community – in particular, the Finchleys, Mabbetts and Mitchell families.

This is small-town life writ large and with brutality, rawness and, above all, astonishing beauty. Quintessentially Australian, evoking a time and place at once familiar and strange, this book is an ode to difference, to those who dare to dream, who break the rules, defy authority, but also the high price that is sometimes exacted for such risks. For all its poetic splendour, the book is not without darkness: shadows fall throughout, a stark reminder that even within simplicity and beauty there are dangers hovering in the wings – people, events, accidents, choices, and more. Written in sublime prose, this novel is filled with drama, humour, tragedy, hope, loss, forgiveness and love.

It’s an achingly lovely tale that shines long after the last page and I’ve no doubt whatsoever, Connie Starr will set the literary firmament ablaze.

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