Book Review: 'Salt Creek'

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In the August 2016 newsletter, Lucy Treloar answered our questions about her editing and writing life. As a follow-up, Jane Fitzpatrick reviews Lucy’s recent novel, Salt Creek, which was short-listed for the 2016 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

Salt Creek, the new novel by Lucy Treloar, is set in the Coorong region of South Australia in the mid-1800s. Hester Finch, teacher, widow and mother, looks back from 1870s England to her earlier life there. Hester is the eldest girl in a large, formerly well-to-do family. Her father, Stanton Finch, has made a series of bad investments and is forced to uproot the family from its comfortable existence in Adelaide to take up life on their farm.

From the outset you can tell that things are not going to go well for the Finches. Hester’s genteel mother is depressed and grows more so. Hester has misgivings about her father’s judgement, in particular in refusing to stay in Adelaide by any means. Hester’s older brothers are not sympathetic characters and her younger sister Adelaide (Addy) is indulged and allowed to run wild.

First encounters with the Indigenous locals are terrifying to the Finches, but under the Quaker-inspired approach of Hester’s father (‘all men are created equal’ – the blacks just need ‘civilising’) a close friendship grows with Tull, the son of an Indigenous woman who had been stolen by a whaler. The misery that white people bring to the first Australians is at first revealed only in glimpses. Later, Tull is used to explain more. The book explores how the cultures view each other and the misunderstandings that are rife. Stanton Finch turns out to be far worse than misguided, and his actions drive much of the tragedy that follows. As the family unravels, Hester becomes determined to make her own way in life. Ultimately, it is this determination that takes her to her life in England.

There is a lot going on in Salt Creek: family drama, culture clash, snippets from the lives of real historical figures, tragedy, a well-turned plot and dash of romance. Clearly, some solid research has gone into recreating the era and the setting. The sense of place is strong, with the Coorong vividly brought to life as a salty, sandy, spare landscape. The book’s many fine qualities make it a good read.

Jane Fitzpatrick