There’s no doubt that books set in Tasmania are popular at the moment and if this marvellous debut novel by former Taswegian, Mary-Lou Stephens, is anything to go by, it’s no wonder. This beautiful, heart-wrenching and atmospheric story about the apple orchardists of the scenic Huon Valley, is Australian historical fiction at its finest.
The tale opens in a dramatic and utterly riveting fashion – with the traumatic and deadly bushfires that ripped through not just Hobart, but great swathes of the East Coast, destroying everything in their path. Readers follow schoolteacher, Catherine Turner, as she desperately sets about keeping her pupils and colleagues safe from the flames’ path, before undertaking a dangerous journey south to check on her family and their apple orchard.
Tragedy awaits Catherine yet, being stalwart and loyal, she seeks to help her grieving father and mother rebuild their business and stake a claim in the industry and area she loves. Only, long-standing prejudice, changing political and industrial conditions and heart-ache will stand in her way.
In the meantime, her neighbour and childhood friend, Annie, has just given birth to a longed-for daughter. After five sons, this child is precious. Even so, Catherine cannot fathom Annie’s set against her husband’s old friend, Mark, and his young son, Charlie, who have come to stay with them as respite from a stalled career and broken marriage. Unable to help herself, Catherine is drawn to both Charlie and Mark, alienating Annie because of her interest, but without understanding why.
Against this alternating familial and friendship backdrop, the greater story of the apple orchardists, their heart-ache, back-breaking work and disappointment plays out over the years. We bear witness to massive social and political changes and challenges, the influx of migrants into the community, union movements, decisions made in far away in an indifferent parliament (and another country) and the impact they had on the ground, and learn how the Huon particularly became a haven for hippies and other artistic folk who wished to live differently and defy stultifying social norms.
I confess, I didn’t know much about the history of apples or the orchards or how Tasmania earned the moniker the Apple Isle. Mary-Lou has done impeccable research and given the story of what was endured and survived or the adaptions made such heart and depth. I ached for these folk; laughed, cried, became so indignant and angry. It’s testimony to fabulous writing that you can be pulled into a story that, at one level, is so vast and terrible and yet, at another, is experienced very personally through the main characters we grow to know and love.
This is a beautiful tale of loss, love, tragedy and triumph but, above all, incredible resilience that is both lilting and testimony to the people to whom its dedicated. It will linger in your mind and heart long after the last page. Better still, it will make you long to not only see Tasmania and all her natural beauty, but fight to maintain it.