This beautifully crafted novel set in rural Australia in the aftermath of WWI, is an incredibly moving story of loss, betrayal, masculinity, and terrible and entrenched bigotry. The story is told from three perspectives – that of two returned servicemen, Snow and Jack, and explores the expectations placed on them by themselves, others and especially patriarchal and white society – and a British nurse, the appropriately named Grace, who, married to an Australian returned serviceman, the eccentric and damaged Arthur, travels with him when he returns to his homeland and takes up the grant of land offered to all white soldiers. Only Jack, an Indigenous former Light Horseman is not given the opportunity to either own (by white laws) or work the land which is his anyway. Accustomed to being treated as if he has no rights, his service and sacrifice for his country so swiftly forgotten, Jack remains a drifter on the soil that is his.
Like Jack, both Arthur and Snow – the latter who most people give a wide berth – carry the internal wounds of their experiences and actions, the horrors to which they bore witness and played a part in – unable to quite readjust to their survival and the role that the land and the government now demands of them – never mind others. But what none of the men, who prefer to keep others at a distance anticipated is firstly, Grace, and the ability she has to recognise their pain and seek ways to heal them and herself, but also the land and the capacity it has to regenerate – not just what’s grown but those who work it. The land and each other.
I found this book achingly beautiful. Sparse yet so rich in its descriptions I found myself lingering on the words, the richness of the characters, the setting (which is marvellously represented), their memories and current interactions long after I’d finished the tale. The writing is sublime and the story that is told so important. It’s one that makes you squirm at the way the men, especially Jack, are treated – feel a deep shame that this happened – and the knowledge that it still does in parts. But it’s also such an important and unknown part of our history that needs to have a light shone on it. Kim Kelly does that and more and in relaying such a tragically-beautiful story, infuses not just sunshine on a dark past but imbues it with hope for the future. Simply superb.