I grew up in the early 1970s on a diet of Biblical stories. Each week at Sunday School we would receive a tiny shiny card with a picture of Jesus on it and a Biblical quote that we had to learn off by heart.
There were posters on the walls of Jesus in a white robe with a luminous halo around his head, his 12 apostles smiling behind him. We learned of good and bad. Our black hearts before we let Jesus in. And then there were the sinners and lepers: the outcasts of society who hoped that Jesus would heal them.
Back then, I knew nothing of leprosy, other than that it made your body parts fall off, and that sufferers had to live segregated from everyone else. As a child, I didn't think of the ostracism and isolation that must have accompanied the disease. Or that children could get it too.
It was with this limited childhood impression, along with a broader understanding of disease gained through my veterinary degree, that I came to Eleanor Limprecht's historical novel, The Coast.
The title refers to the Coast Hospital at Little Bay just outside Sydney, where, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, patients suffering from leprosy and other diseases, such as influenza, were treated.
Limprecht follows the stories of fictional characters Hilda (renamed Alice in the hospital), her mother (from whom Alice caught leprosy as a young child), and an Indigenous man, Jack, who is stolen from his family and later goes on to serve Australian in WWI.
Growing up in the country, Alice was unaware that her mother had leprosy. She knew was that her mother had gone away, but it was rarely spoken of. A diagnosis of leprosy in a family member brought isolation and ostracism for the entire family. Names were changed and rumours denied in an effort to maintain social standing.
When Alice began to develop symptoms of the disease, nobody told her what was happening. Her grandmother took her to visit her mother at the Coast Hospital, and there she stayed, confined to the lazaret from age nine through to adulthood, imprisoned away from the rest of society. It's a terrible shock: the deceit and betrayal by her grandmother, the discovery that she too is afflicted with leprosy.
Through the other inhabitants of the colony, some of whom have advanced leprosy, Alice can see what might lay ahead of her if she doesn't respond to treatment. But it's a surprisingly caring community. Within the colony, lepers find ways to live under the guidance of a caring doctor.
They have access to the beach below the hospital, and a small boat which they are allowed to take out rowing on the bay. "The sandstone ... rose behind the beach into cliffs with small pockets and shelters." They also have stories and a few books to share with each other.
Alice develops a tender, but at times, frictional relationship with her mother - like a normal teenager. And yet, she yearns for love and freedom and the rest of the world. How can a young person be held back from all that? And who is the young First Nations man who arrives at the hospital? What is the force that draws her to him?
The Coast speaks of the cruelty of ostracism and rejection, isolation and racism - all of which were experienced by lepers back then, but which are still so appallingly present today, in modern society, even though we consider ourselves to be more accepting and inclusive.
Limprecht's writing is precise and compassionate. She excels at detail, bringing place and character to life with insightful observations.
Swinging from first person to third, Limprecht explores multiple points of view, skipping back and forth through time, to strategically encompass pertinent historical events. She also confronts difficult topics, like the physical manifestations of leprosy, and the way sufferers were often treated like animals.
The Coast is a sad and gentle story beneath which runs great currents of outrage, injustice, discrimination and prejudice: "I want to touch his shoulder, but I am long used to not touching. You only need to see that look once to learn."
The terrible irony is that it was eventually discovered that transmission of leprosy required prolonged close contact. This means, tragically, that affected people - extending right back to Biblical times and beyond - were needlessly subjected to unnecessary social rejection and isolation.
The Coast a story of concealment, distrust, shame and invisibility. However, it is also a celebration of humanity, compassion and empowerment. As a study of life, death, joy, desire and suffering, Limprecht has delivered a fulfilling and sensitive narrative with insights and lessons for us all.
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