This first novel is inspired by the true story of two friends, Kate Gibson and Harriet Parker. They were the daughters of lighthouse keepers, who grew up together, in a small, isolated community on the coast of Australia’s Jervis Bay Territory, late in the 19th century.
Certain facts are public record; the story that underpins those facts is imagined.
I love that this is a story of female friendship, very firmly rooted in a particular time and a place that the author had taken time and trouble to understand. And that it was told in one voice, a voice that always rang true, and that told the story from start to finish, with no shifts in time and no digressions.
The younger of the two girls, Kate, tells her story.
Her world is a small one, and she only really knows the families of the other men who work at the lighthouse with her father. There are a few fishermen who have settled nearby and just about make a living, and there are native people who live a little further away; but there is nobody else. That makes the friendship between the two girls particularly precious.
Kate is bright, bookish, brave, and loves to explore the world around her while she waits to grow up and have the kind of adventures, and see the kind of places, that she has only read about in books. She is eager to explore every bit of the world open to her – cliffs, beaches, grasslands – but her friend lacks her natural agility and confidence, and so she struggles to keep up and occasionally get into difficulties. Harriet is calm, quiet and much more cautious; and she dreams not of adventure but of a husband, a home and a family of her own.
‘Even though the peppery scent of the scrub on that headland ran through my blood, I knew that there must be other places that would thrill me. And while I hoped that Harriet would be by my side as I ventured off into the great unknown, I knew this was unlikely, Where I had dreams of boats and pirates and coral island adventures, Harriet saw a future of home and hearth …’
The details of their world and their lives are quite beautifully drawn; it is clear that that the author has researched and that she has understood, and she has woven what she learned into the story she in a way that feels completely natural and right. I had a lovely time watching the way the small community worked and all of the domestic details, but, for me, it was when Kate was exploring her world that the story really sang.
I could pick up the sea saltiness in the air, I could feel the breeze; I could see grass and flowers give way to cliffs, and the beach below ; I knew exactly how it felt to move through the world that Kate knew so well.
Although I am on a different coast on the other side of the world it felt so like home, and it brought this painting to mind:
(Amanda Hoskin – View of St Michael’s Mount from the Fields)
A newcomer would unsettle the friendship between the two girls. He was a young fisherman who came closer to the community around the lighthouse then others did. Each girls is drawn to him, but he responds to them and treats them quite differently. Kate is jealous, and Harriet is reluctant to talk.
Then her family sends Harriet to visit relations in Melbourne, because they want her to meet more people and see other possibilities before she makes any decisions about her future. Kate is thrown into the company of the local boys and younger children, and she misjudges situations and makes mistakes.
Her behaviour is far from laudable, but I recognised her emotions and I understood her actions.
Tension grew, and my head was full of questions about what was happening, what would happen.
There were maybe too many questions, but that was, at least in part, because the facts that this story is spun around are difficult to explain.
I have to say that is a weakness; but I also have to say that all the things she did well in the book – the way she drew me into a world, a community and a story- tell me that Kate Mildenhall will write something quite wonderful when she finds the right story to tell.
I was captivated by this book; and so I’m hoping that one isn’t too far away …