The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

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The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades

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Category: General Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A rewarding hist-fict slow burner set in WWII Australia, making us think again about the strangers in our midst and the inherent dangers that come from surprising sources.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 416 Date: June 2017
Publisher: Chatto & Windus
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1784741341

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1945: The war is in its dying days and creating problems far from the different fronts. For instance, in Australia, what can be done with the Italian POWs brought into the country? The solution seems to be their use as cheap labour. In this way Kate Dowd's father agrees to take two onto his sheep farm in drought-ridden New South Wales. Kate is initially wary of the two men – Vittorio and Luca – but gradually she realises that not all dangers come from outside her community. Life on a sheep station may be harsh but for Kate it's going to get a lot worse.

The inspiration for this, Joy Rhoades's debut novel, comes from her grandmother (a fifth generation sheep farmer). Her tales from the past, including the arrival of World War II POWs, did much to trigger Joy's imagination.

As a result Joy has taken the feeling of the time and fictionalised to make a story that works well as historical fiction but also carries a seam of modern resonance. Even though this is a debut novel, Joy demonstrates talent, whisking us away to a different time and space.

Kate has grown up in Australia where attitudes and ideas are entrenched. The domains of men and women are metaphorically written in stone so when the traditional order on the sheep station starts to crumble, Kate has a battle against more than the elements and the price of fleeces.

When it comes to the Aboriginal people, there have always been indigenous men working on the Dowd land and of course Daisy, their young housekeeper, is also Aboriginal. Kate has always treated them with humanity and hasn't thought much about how these people on poor pay would live and survive away from the station.

OK, Daisy isn't officially permitted to cook... or rather if she did, no self-respecting white person would touch her food. But this isn't a problem for the Dowds; Daisy is an accomplished cook and the family just keep quiet about the source of the wonderful tea time treats that the local callers consume with gusto. Things change though. In this case something happens which opens Kate's eyes – and ours - to practices and views that are particularly savage.

Indeed this is a novel that combines entertainment with some big questions. As the 'dangerous' Italian aliens are brought onto the farm we start to wonder who the real problem people are, especially when we witness small town Australia in full flow.

Starting gently but going on to deliver some big punches, this isn't your average woman-fighting-the-odds-with-a-shot-at-romance we first assumed it to be. It brings out ideas that we may recognise in this pre-Trump era, making us look at our world anew. We may try to pass off the prejudices and results as history and the fact that we think we know better now, yet the conscience niggles remain. Looking no further than the strangers or those different from us in our midst is as dangerous as it is deeply unfair and inhumane. The novel is also enhanced by Joy's avoidance of a Hollywood ending amongst the signposts towards a possible sequel.

On the lighter side, the recipes at the end are also a nice touch. (I can recommend the Anzac biscuits!) Yet it's the theme that will remain in our minds: one person's struggle against life and expectations that gradually change her world, how she feels about it and how others feel about her.

(Thank you, Chatto & Windus, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals and you'd like to delve deeper into Australian fiction with a historical bent, there's always the award winning The Light Between Oceans by M L Stedman or the wonderfully observed and just as brilliant Nine Days by Toni Jordan.

Buy The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades at Amazon.co.uk


Buy The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Woolgrower's Companion by Joy Rhoades at Amazon.com.

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