- The Philosopher's Daughters, by Alison Booth. RedDoor. $24.99.
The past can often be the most comfortable place in which to dwell - even a past that was, by all accounts, inhospitable, dangerous and uncertain.
Alison Booth may be isolating in Canberra, with the rest of her family elsewhere, but she has, only recently, enjoyed dipping into the imagined life of British migrants forging a new life in outback Australia in the late 19th century.
"I think it's probably my mother and my maternal grandparents, and their sense of family," she says.
"My mother had a strong sense of family historically, and our ancestors had all come to Australia by ship, and there were stories. They came from all different backgrounds - some reasonably affluent, some extremely poor - and I always found that rather exciting, that you'd get this huge variety of family backgrounds, all meeting up in Australia, and then marrying one another."
Her grandfather was a stock and station agent; he and his wife came from large families, and had contacts all over the place, in Sydney and Melbourne. Family tales and reminiscences from the period have always abounded.
And now, they have inspired Booth's latest novel, The Philosopher's Daughters, about two sisters who travel, separately, to Australia and make their way to the Norther Territory. One is there with her husband, the other visits later, and both have strong reactions to their intensely foreign surroundings.
The book, Booth's fifth novel, has a long genesis.
"I got the idea years ago, back in 2003, when we went up to Darwin for the first time," she says of a trip she took with her family.
"I'd heard a lot about the Northern Territory from my father who really loved it, and we went up there and then I really fell in love with the landscape.
"It also really hit me in the face, the racism that I observed, because I'd had quite a sheltered childhood, and then I went overseas - to London - for much of my post-graduate training.
"I was really shocked, and that sort of just percolated into my brain, and I thought I'd like to write something about that."
Now, some 17 years later, the resulting novel has come about smack bang in the middle of a global pandemic. She's feeling the effects, in the social sense; she is practising social isolation in her Canberra home - we're talking on Facetime - while her daughters are living and working in the Northern Territory, and her husband, economic historian Tim Hatton, is in the UK, due back in Canberra shortly.
But it's here, where she spends the majority of her year in "normal times", that she would rather be.
Apart from writing novels, Booth is also a professor of economics at the Australian National University. She's lived in Canberra with her family since 2003, and counts herself among the capital's surprisingly vibrant cohort of writers. Her first three books, a trilogy, are set in a fictional town on the NSW South Coast - Canberra's playground of sorts.
And her parallel careers are not as incongruous as they first seem. Writing novels is more plausible now that she's an emeritus professor, without teaching or supervising. But in fact, her writing habits have always slotted easily into her other professional life.
"I felt driven to write fiction when I'd reached a certain point in my life - I'd always wanted to write fiction and I realised that if I didn't get on with it, I wouldn't have the opportunity," she says.
"Writing is a very long apprenticeship, really, and the way I do it is I can't do it for very long, at any one time, which is an advantage because it means I can work obsessively at a really high level of concentration - this is when I'm actually writing - and after an hour I'm completely washed out, and I move on to something else."
Needless to say, The Philosopher's Daughters has taken a very long time to make its way into the world. And now, ironically, the physical manifestation of her work has been waylaid somewhere in a British printing press, delayed by coronavirus. All the same, the book is now out in the world, and she is waiting to see what people make of it.
The story follows sisters Sarah and Harriet who are, as the title suggests, the daughters of a philosopher somewhere in the vein of John Stuart Mill, of whom Booth is a great admirer. But while the father is not a major character in the story, it's his teachings and his outlook - a defender of the rights of minorities, a campaigner for women's suffrage - that inform the young women's foray into the strange new world of the largely untarnished Australian outback.
Sarah and Harriet and both educated and artistically inclined - Sarah to music and Harriet to painting. It's the painting that seems to form a barrier to Harriet's own self-actualisation - she has always leaned towards serious pursuits involving social reform. But she comes to realise that her artistic expression is just as valid as her sense of social justice, despite what her father might have led her to believe. She sets about trying to capture the beauty of the land around her - something Booth herself achieves through describing the landscape.
Both sisters are also enmeshed in the lives of the Indigenous residents of the station, where they witness their shocking treatment at the hands of white settlers. They're also forced to reckon with the very real limits of their gender in the late 1800s.
The land is hard, the climate harsh. The women wear corsets, and long skirts and petticoats, and wash their white blouses by hand. They drink tea, and wait for weeks on end for letters and newspapers to arrive from the Old Country. They send telegrams, and learn about the people - mostly First Australians - living in nearby camps. They defend themselves and each other against wild animals and predatory men, and grow accustomed to - and fiercely fond of - the vivid and beautiful land around them.
There's also a love story, involving Harriet and Mick, a mission-educated black man on the station - a development that, Booth says, was easy to visualise.
"I found that came perfectly naturally, that attraction between the two," she says.
"It just seemed part of the general feminist view that that would happen and that you could never tell when attraction is going to occur, so why shouldn't it occur with a white English woman and a very black South Australian man?"
Historical accuracy is important to Booth - as a framework in which to set her story, and as an article of faith for the reader. The whole book is steeped in research, in the loveliest sense.
"Anything that happens within that time period is of course completely fictitious, but I do like the dates to be right," she says. She thinks their father - the absent but all-important figure - would have approved. His omniscience is a fact that has been lost on some of the book's early reviews.
"Actually I think this is a valid point, although it's said by people who don't understand about the role of titles in trying to get people to buy a book," she says.
"There's always a schism between a book and the title, I think, and what will possibly sell a book and what won't. There have been whole masses of blog posts written on somebody's daughter, somebody's wife, as if the woman doesn't have an identity of her own. But anyway, this book joined the throng."