The Blue Mile is quite simply an extraordinary book. I absolutely loved it and, once I’d grown accustomed to its very original style, the quirkiness and authenticity of the language, as well as the way the tale is told, found it impossible to put down.
Set in the late 1920s and early 1930s in Depression-era Sydney, the book is narrated from two points of view: that of Eoghan O’Keenan, an Irish-Australian man eking out an existence in the slums of Chippendale, Sydney, and Olivia Greene, a lovely young designer who dreams of opening a couture’s salon in Paris. The Blue Mile is at once a simply beautiful love story, a homage to a largely forgotten time in Sydney, a story about the way politics impacts upon real lives, and a treatise on class and religious differences.
Seguing from Eoghan (Yo-Yo’s) voice and Olivia’s, we see the close of the 1920s through their very different eyes. Yo-Yo offers a masculine voice of desperation, ideals and firm work and religious ethics all of which have him fleeing the house in which he grew up, a house which offers him nothing but a bleak and violent future. A man of high principles and gallantry despite (or perhaps because of) his working class origins and abusive upbringing, Yo-Yo takes his seven year old sister, the adorable, Agnes (Aggie) with him, determined to give her what he never had: love, stability and a future.
Running counter to Eoghan’s dark tale is Olivia’s feminine and whimsical dreams, ones fostered by her hard-working mother who instills in Olivia an unusual spirit of independence and a belief in the power of dreams if only you work towards them. Olivia is the child of a dissolute British aristocrat who, after divorce, ships his ex-wife and daughter off to the antipodes without another thought. Only mildly bitter, Ollie is a kind and talented soul who though she longs for change, also fears its consequences. Determined to achieve her dreams and on her own, she eschews her mother’s offers of help and, later of relocation, and forges ahead, earning a reputation some covet and others envy.
But it’s when fate brings Eoghan and Ollie together and steers them onto a rocky and unpredictable path that both of them have to make difficult choices, choices that run counter to what their upbringings, dreams, class, parents and God have taught them to expect. Their stories intertwine and collide with heart-breaking, uplifting and calamitous consequences – for Ollie, Eoghan, Aggie and those who love and care about them.
I don’t want to say too much more lest I spoil this unforgettable tale except that the way the era is evoked is utterly magical. The phatic language, the everyday patois of the working, middle and upper classes gives the novel such authenticity and veracity as does the sense of time and place. The way Kelly understands and uses history, not in a boring didactic way but to make the story sing is marvellous. She makes the shape of a hat, a brooch, or the collar of a shirt signify an era and those who not only lived but worked through it in ways that are at once clever and lyrical. As the characters walk the streets of Sydney, so too the city comes alive for the reader in all its ugly glory and promise. The Harbour Bridge which, as the book opens, is incomplete is as much a character as the city, but it’s also a metaphor for the events in the book: for the span of time, for hopes, imaginings, and livelihoods built, shattered and salvaged. It’s a sign of union and unions, of a city on the cusp of transformation, of a new era about to be ushered in. It’s also signifies the journey the two central characters make – from opposite sides in every way to some kind of possible or impossible meeting.
This juncture, like that of the bridge, is not without battles – emotional, financial, religious and other. And it’s through these that the heart of the book (and the folk that live in its pages) come alive and beats at a frantic pace making it impossible to put down lest you miss one single moment.
A gem of a book that will captivate lovers of history, romance, politics and so many others things besides. It surprised me in the most wonderful of ways – it literally took my breath away and I cannot wait to read more of Kelly’s work. Cannot recommend this novel highly enough. It is stunning.