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