Read­ing room:

Be im­mersed in the harsh, rugged ro­mance of the Aus­tralian bush, thanks to a won­der­ful new voice in lit­er­ary ru­ral fic­tion, writes Juliet Rieden.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - Contents -

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That grace-un­der­pres­sure, gen­eros­ity and kind­ness, I’ve taken from fam­ily and coun­try women I knew grow­ing up.

The Wool­grower’s Com­pan­ion by Joy Rhoades, Pen­guin.

Aus­tralian ru­ral ro­mance has been build­ing a strong fan base over the past decade and Joy Rhoades’ de­but novel de­lib­er­ately taps into the genre, but there are many more di­men­sions to this slick piece of sto­ry­telling. Set in 1945, it’s a tale that dis­cusses the chang­ing role of women, the legacy of war, the dam­ag­ing af­ter­shock of blind prej­u­dice and racism, and the power of love. While this may sound a bit epic in scale, the au­thor has clev­erly con­tained her story within a 10-month pe­riod, fol­low­ing one woman – Kate Dowd – and her bat­tle to save her fam­ily homestead and busi­ness.

“Amiens” in north­ern NSW is a vast, sprawl­ing sheep sta­tion run by Kate’s fa­ther, Ralph. As the novel opens, we find fa­ther and daugh­ter wait­ing at the train sta­tion for the ar­rival of Ital­ian pris­on­ers of war, who will then work as labour­ers. This is the help Kate des­per­ately needs. Since the death of her mother, Kate’s fa­ther has be­come an an­gry and trou­bled shadow of his for­mer self, plagued with post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der (PTSD) from the Great War. So it has fallen to Kate to run the sta­tion, with the sheep­rear­ing guide The Wool­grower’s Com­pan­ion her only trust­wor­thy aid. As she takes on more of the bur­den, she re­alises the farm is in dire straits, her fa­ther up to his neck in debt.

The power of this story lies in the vivid sense of the Aus­tralian bush, the de­scrip­tions read­ing like a love let­ter to the land, no doubt more height­ened for au­thor Joy since she wrote the novel from over­seas. “I didn’t re­alise how steeped I was in trees and scrub, rain and drought. The Aussie bush is in my head,” says Joy.

While Kate is not based on any­one in par­tic­u­lar, she does com­bine el­e­ments from many of the women Joy grew up with. “I started with sto­ries from my grand­mother, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion gra­zier. She lived through WWII on a sheep sta­tion, and faced drought at that time. While this isn’t her story, it’s in­spired by that era, the strug­gle of farm­ing life and the power of hope. I used dif­fer­ent as­pects of many peo­ple for Kate. That grace-un­der-pres­sure, gen­eros­ity and kind­ness, I’ve taken from fam­ily and coun­try women I knew grow­ing up. My grand­mother had that. A sort of gen­tle steel.”

There is a rather too ob­vi­ous ro­mance that thuds through the nar­ra­tive but pleas­ingly doesn’t end as you would ex­pect, and a shock­ing twist, which as­tute read­ers may catch on to but that won’t lessen its power. The re­sult is a very read­able tale of ru­ral Aus­tralia which prick­les with bit­ing com­men­tary and his­toric ob­ser­va­tion. Joy Rhoades is most cer­tainly a new lit­er­ary voice in the ru­ral genre. Can’t wait for what’s next.

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