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Tonight's review is of Pearl in a Cage , the first of a trilogy about the life of Jenny Morrison by Joy Dettman. It is a novel of Australia in the 1920s - 1930s. Critics have described it as an Australian take on Angela's Ashes, which I haven't read. I was inspired to start reading this novel after reading an interview with Joy Dettman in the SMH at the time she was promoting the lastet novel in the Pearl series.
I found the novel pretty heavy going to be honest. I found myself on an emotional rollercoaster that peaked with feelings of relief at having survived Jenny's ordeals with her and troughed with constant pain, humiliation, abuse, torture and the waste of a young life that had so much potential and talent. Not exactly a wide range of emotion and a negative one at that. Which is why it took so long for me to finish this novel.
Enough already with the debriefing! This is meant to be a book review.
Jenny was orphaned at birth in a rural town in Victoria. Her mother was a mysterious foreigner to the town. Expensively dressed, she is found, near death, at the railway line that passes through the town of Woody Creek. The mystery lady lives long enough, at the expert hands of the town midwife, Gertrude Foote, to give birth to her daughter.
Gertrude Foote has a past. Her daughter Amber is the only positive outcome (or should that be positive in the past tense) of a disastorous marriage to a seemingly eligible doctor. The doctor died as a consequence of a number of his less than attractive lifestyle choices leaving Gertrude a single mother. Gertrude did learn the rudiments of basic medical care from her husband, if only to treat him. She refines this knowledge and soon establishes herself as the medicine woman of Woody Creek.
At the time of Jenny's birth, Amber is recently married to Norman, a man under the thumb of his odious widowed mother. It is not a happy marriage. Amber has had a number of still births and Jenny's arrival is a chance to finally have a healthy, beautiful baby. If only Amber could see it this way. Because Amber is not a beautiful person under her physical charms....
Jenny joins Norman and Amber's not so happy family which includes their daughter Cecelia. As Amber's mind spirals into an internal world of persecuting hallucinations, both girls suffer physical and psychological neglect. Jenny's suffering is compounded by her sister's physical advantage and Norman's blind love of the woman Amber was. The novel ends with Jenny in her teenage years. She has been trapped in a situation she seemingly cannot escape. Almost overnight, the little ray of sunshine that refused to be crushed by the cruelty inflicted upon her fades. In its place is a hardened woman who knows that the world really is not a fair place for vulnerable women.
I found this novel an uncomfortable read. That's not a bad thing but I think you have to be in the right frame of mind to be confronted with endless pages of suffering. Dettman is a very engaging writer. Her characters are richly painted, though the 'good' and the 'bad' are quite starkly portrayed with the 'bad' having little with which the reader can empathize - until the very end of the book. By which time I'd managed to develop an empathy for Jenny.
The backdrop to the main plot twists revolved around that period of Australia's history as the worst of the Great Depression hit and then as the country began to recover. It was fascinating reading about this period of history and how it pertained to people in the rural parts of Australia as opposed to in the big cities.
At times, I was reminded of Bryce Courteney's Potato Factory / Solomon family saga. I am itching to read more of Jenny Morrison as she seeks revenge for the pain of her childhood. But first, I need some relatively mindless chicklit or an armful of gossip magazines or both.