Unsettled, by Gay Lynch, is part memoir, part intriguing Australian history

  • Unsettled, by Gay Lynch. Ligature. $34.99.

Part family epic, part Australian history, this is above all the story of a woman who manages to survive in a society comfortable in its acceptance of her low status. Rosanna Lynch is a teenager as the story begins; she and her family have managed to leave the west of Ireland in the years after the Great Famine and have come to the border area between South Australia and Victoria. Her father and older brother bring not-always-regular support to the family as workers in the local big house.

Rosanna's only fun time is with an aboriginal girl named Moorecke, who comes and goes in the intervals between gun-chases by the local settler families. Rosanna's main concern is her younger brother Skelly who has a blood condition he has been told he shares with the children of a European queen. She is a more than competent horsewoman, a particular favourite of the stallion named Lucifer. She is also a good worker and is taken on by the family for whom her father and brother work, but assumed to be incompetent, ignorant and dishonest.

During her time at the big house, she meets a travelling actor who uses her in the way that men have always used servant girls. She thinks he loves her and the reader wonders when the inevitable will happen.

At this stage, it is necessary to forget the story and speak briefly of the structure of the novel. Rather than twist our emotions about dying children or pregnant teenagers, our author moves her story along in jumps: five years here, three months there, several years elsewhere, finally a gap of 10 years; by the time we are finished we realise that the whole story has covered more than 20 years.

What happens in those gaps affects the story, but we learn of those changes only in passing. There is a new child, for example, but it is assumed to be an older brother of twins born to Rosanna's mother; there is a furious revenge by Rosanna for the abuse of her brother Skelly by some religious brothers; and there is Lucifer, his ownership in question, no longer active on the steeplechase circuit, but the sire of many other winners.

There is much Australian history running through the story. The poet and horseman Adam Lindsay Gordon is one of the characters in the story as is Father Julian Tenison Woods, the support and inspiration for the work of Mary MacKillop. And the wreck of the SS Admella on the Carpenter Rocks off Mount Gambier in 1859 is central to the story. The author tells us at the end that the book had its "first incarnation" as a PhD thesis, so there may be other characters and events that will delight those familiar with the history of Victoria and South Australia in the second half of the 19th century.

But the book stands on its own as a completely satisfying story. The language is often luscious, the descriptions of flora and fauna stunning. As a story, it may remind the reader of comparisons with one of Thomas Hardy's characters or speculating whether it could be treated as a kind of inversion of the story of Anna Karenina. Admittedly, there may be times when you hear distant shouts of "Get on with it", including perhaps from this reviewer, but you could say that too about the writing of Hardy or Dickens or Trollope. Worthy company.

This story An intriguing family epic filled with history first appeared on The Canberra Times.