I wasn’t at all sure that this would be my kind of book, but there was something about it that called to me; and when I picked it up and read the opening pages I was drawn in, by lovely writing and by subtle promises of exploring real lives lived with empathy and insight.
It took a little time, and careful reading, to untangle characters and relationships and circumstances, because everyone and everything was introduced with little by way of explanation. I slowly learned what I needed to know, and I discovered that this was a book that rewarded close attention.
It isn’t a book full of action and drama; it’s a book that captures particular lives shaped by particular circumstances.
Stefan and Evangeline Müller live on a farm in a quiet valley in the north coast of New South Wales with two young daughters, Tess and Meg. They’d had a third daughter, Pip, who had died of leukaemia two years ago, and the family had not recovered from that loss.
Evangeline is an artist who spent her childhood in a commune, and had remained there until it was destroyed in a devastating fire that left her with physical and mental scars. Her daughter’s death left her unable to paint; instead she left the house every day, pushing an empty pram, and staying away for hours at a time.
Stefan is an apiarist, following in a long a family tradition of caring for bees and their hives. When his daughter died it became an obsession. He found that bees were escaping and he struggled to understand why. Then he turned to drink.
Tess and Meg are struggling with their grief too. Tess has been mute for months, and obsesses over the house, the weather, and the differences between her and her sisters. Meg worries about her family, and she worries that her memories of Pip are slowly fading.
And then there’s Jim Parker, Tess’s teacher, who has come from Sydney to leave the past behind him and start a new life.
Jim and Evangeline meet, but he doesn’t realise that she is the mother of his silent pupil and she doesn’t realise that he is her daughter’s teacher.
A relationship develops.
The story is beautifully written. The words are poetic, they are understated, and yet somehow they swept me along.
There is a plot spinning around these lives. Developers are encroaching on the unspoilt valley and protestors are responding. A wrecked car is uncovered on the Müller property. Someone Jim thought he had left behind reappears. And it seems that there is more to be learned about the commune fire.
It’s all topical, it’s all credible, there’s nothing that I can say is wrong, but when it all comes together it’s a little too much.
But I found it easy put that to one side, because there is so much else that makes this story sing.
There is the exploration of those intertwined lives, of the consequences of grief that is unshared and unexpressed, of the complexities of human interactions and relationships, of the difference between emotion and expression, of the different realities of each and every life ….
There is the depth of understanding and the clarity of expression of all of this. In beautiful language that is poetic, understated and utterly right.
That the author drew each and every character so well, and painted the whole picture beautifully, shows such skill. I wasn’t pulled into the story, but I saw everything so clearly that I couldn’t help caring and feeling many different emotions.
More than enough to reward the time and attention that I gave to this book.