Marina lost both her parents on the passage over to Australia from England to a virulent illness that she recovered from. Although taken in by a kindly man who had lost his son, Marina then finds herself on the outer with the man’s wife, the recalcitrant Sarah who makes no secret of the fact that she considers Marina a burden she’d rather not have. After they dock in Sydney and tragedy finds her again, Sarah comes to resent Marina even more as they take their places working at the grand old homestead known as Waratah House in the southern highlands of New South Wales. Marina quickly finds an ally and protector in the homestead’s cook, coming to love the homestead and even her role within it. She forms friendships, including one special, secret friendship that should never have occurred.
Some years later, Marina’s daughter Emily is a beautiful young teenager and in training to become the cook at Waratah House, now under new management. Emily has grown up with some of the other children, including two of Sarah’s children and although they were incredibly close as youngsters, jealousies, rivalries and unrequited passions threaten to tear them apart. History is repeating itself, with Emily facing the same resentments, the same underhanded hatreds as her mother before her and also finding herself with the same love for the homestead.
Beginning in the late 1800s and moving through to the turn of the century, Waratah House is a story of life in the servant’s quarters – the relationships formed, be they good or ill advised, the roles in which they play and the politics within that defines and changes these roles. It’s a story of great romance, faith in family and knowing that the family you have can be more than just the one that shares your blood.
I received Waratah House for review from the people at Penguin Australia and was intrigued by the premise. I haven’t read much Australian historical fiction and I was interested to read something set over 100 years ago in an area I’m actually quite familiar with. The homestead is in the Southern Highlands of NSW which is an area I lived in for four years as a child and have returned to semi-regularly over the years to visit family who live in and around the area. It’s a beautiful area and I can only imagine that it was even more so back in the time in which this novel is set.
I loved the detail in this story, beginning with the voyage of the ship from England to Australia. Marina does spend some time of it gravely ill, so the tediousness length of the trip isn’t detailed, but there’s still enough there that you get quite a feel for what it must have been like packing up their lives and setting sail for a far away country. Australia is very different to England but the first settlers did make some mistake in treating it as they would the mother country, farming it the same way and failing miserably. I found the story even more interesting when Marina and her new adopted ‘mother’ Sarah arrived at the homestead – the way in which the servants were structured, their roles and the hopes they had for certain advancement, even marrying for the purposes of advancing in the household service, were all surprising to me. I especially liked the scenes that took place within the kitchen and the homestead’s cook, known affectionately as Cookie was one of my favourite characters. She was larger than life, tough as boots and fiercely protective of first Marina and then Emily. Her gruff exterior hid a heart of gold.
I enjoyed the part of the book that was dedicated to Marina quite a lot but this did dip slightly when we jumped forward 15 or so years in time and the book focused on Marina’s daughter Emily. The book plays on a history repeating story line, and it’s quite true – there are a lot of things that do repeat and given I’d just read Marina going through them, it did detract from the overall enjoyment to read about Emily going through them so quickly. There were a lot of villains in this book as well as a lot of people in love with the same person and it made for repetitive scenes with someone either hissing vengeance or declaring undying love. I also found it strange that Emily was so determined to stay at Waratah House when there were people there so utterly determined to make her miserable and stopping at nothing to achieve it. Her stubbornness and refusal to leave and find herself a life after she lost everything that was dear to her, struck me as unrealistic. At times it seemed more like life at the homestead was just tying her down, reducing her little by little. There seemed no strength to be gained from staying and sticking it out. The curse plot wasn’t something I could really buy into given my skeptic nature but I felt that it was fitting and accurate for the time portrayed and also the characters in the novel.
Despite the few frustrations I had with some elements of the plot, I did really like reading Waratah House. It was definitely something new for me to reading a book from Australia in this time period and I really found myself enjoying the setting. I would’ve liked to have read a little more about some of the more day-to-day tasks of the various servants based on their role as I admit that my knowledge on that sort of thing is quite limited. I was a bit surprised at the ending, I expected a little more closure and although in terms there is some, Emily is still a very young girl at the conclusion of the novel and I would’ve liked to have known what the rest of her life held for her.
Book #119 of 2012
Waratah House is the 44th novel read and completed for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.