It is 1854, and with the certainty of land behind her, Sarah flees her home for the uncertainties of life in the new colony. In steerage, she joins the other unmarried women, where the horrors of their close confinement bring an unraveling of secrets no one can control
Editorial Reviews from Amazon.com
From Publishers Weekly
In her first novel, Australian writer Balint tells the haunting story of a young woman's 1854 ocean passage from England to "New Holland" in sensuous and fiercely precise prose reminiscent of poet-novelist Anne Michaels. Though detailed in its description of the horrible conditions on immigrant ships, the narrative is less a historical novel than a lyrical rumination on the suffusing, diffusing and enveloping power of both water and memory. Her movements aboard ship restricted by disapproving Matron,who oversees the locked and crowded steerage quarters for unmarried women, Sarah Garnett begins numerous letters to her mother in Shropshire, but never gets farther than the few tantalizingly constrained words that begin each chapter. As the stories of the odd assortment of characters onboard begin to unfold, however, so do Sarah's memories, revealing a family history rife with strange secrets and even stranger women. There's Grandmother Frye, a bold sea-captain's wife who smelled so strongly of fish that she "salted the air around her," and Sarah's own mother, who passed on to Sarah the blueprint of a shameful family "pattern" descending from one generation of women to the next. Elliptical references to Sarah's cousin Richard gradually reveal that he is part of that family weakness; perhaps he is on board ship, having run away with Sarah. This is left teasingly ambiguous, for, as the ship languishes in the stultifying doldrums, Sarah's reminiscences and desires become increasingly fluid and fevered, and the line between her hulled-in present and her past eventually becomes indistinct. While Balint succeeds in conveying a young woman's physical and emotional anguish, sometimes her use of the water metaphor becomes overwrought. Yet the narrative is compelling, and keenly observed details bring immediacy to Balint's imaginative recreation of a harrowing experience.
From Library Journal
In this first novel by Melbourne native Balint, two stories unfold simultaneously: narrator Sarah's journey from England to Down Under and her past life in Shropshire. Inspired by published emigrant diaries and letters, the author evokes the mental confinement of Victorian England's family life and arranged marriages and the physical confinement that Sarah suffers in the passenger ship's steerage. Historical details further conjure passion and aversion amid opposite physical and psychological extremes: tropical heat and Antarctic cold, light and dark, dryness and dampness, confinement and escape. Though rich in atmosphere, the story offers little else, and the writing at times seems indulgently self-conscious: "I seem to be able to eat a small portion of macaroni soup and jelly pudding. How strange to have a flavour other than sickness in my throat." To escape is the only decision Sarah makes, and other events are unrelated gestures.
Frankly I was disappointed with the book. The story wandered back and forth through the book and various threads were left dangling. This is such a real shame. It is wonderful that letters and other primary source material sent at the time (1854) have survived, and could have been put to much better use. I was irritated by the error on the first page that Birkenhead is near Portsmouth!
I had ancestors that left England for Australia as assisted migrants in 1854, and I had high hopes for details of what the voyage was like, and there is lots of details about this, but on the whole, for me, this book was disappointing.