The problem with Nikki Gemmell's latest book is that the reader gets so bogged down in the elegant prose that the story is in danger of being ignored. The first-person narrator, 16-year-old Thomasina, describes herself as being "too ungirled for dolls ... can't fold myself into daintiness." Raised in Dorset by her father, she "always owned the outside world, felt talled up in it". Now she finds herself as the only survivor of a shipwreck somewhere off Australia, saved by a young Aboriginal man and deposited by him at the door of the big house whose size and prosperity are in large measure the result of the dispossession and murder of his people.
The house is named Willowbrae, "a name of idyllic Scottishness that feels seamed into the weft of this land". As you begin to be introduced to the occupants, the Craw family, you realise you have been skipping the story for the beauty of the writing. There are places where you find yourself dividing it up into lines of irregular length and trying it out for poetry.
In fact, you are likely to be so distracted by such considerations that you realise you have missed the story for the grace of the prose and the only thing to do is go back and start the book all over again. This time, you won't allow yourself to be distracted by the easy elegance, the nouns manufactured to make the only possible word.
So you start again, refusing to be held up by a sentence like "Alone flexes its claws", as a perfect description for the internal isolation of Thomasina. Her main friend, the only one she can trust, is the seven-year-old boy known in the family as Mouse; he christens her Poss, short for opossum and it is thus she will be known throughout the story. She has been brought to Australia for marriage to a local vicar whom she has never met, a nuptial arranged by her half-brother and that man's wife. Both are lost in the shipwreck, so she is determined not to tell anyone her real name.
In one of her outings with Mouse, they discover a dead Aboriginal woman and child. The family don't want to know about it and she has great difficulty persuading them to remove the dead bodies, hopefully for burial. She makes such a nuisance of herself that the family are able to persuade a doctor that she is suffering from hysteria, a fashionable ailment of the day, so that she can be sent to a primitive asylum, from which she may never escape. At once the story of a young woman who refuses to be flattened into Victorian conformity and of a family whose prosperity was down to the dominance of gunpowder over wooden spears, this is an uncomfortable reminder of early Australian history. If ever a book deserved to become a classic, The Ripping Tree does.
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