All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: Spirits Of The Ghan by Judy Nunn

on November 19, 2015

Spirits Of The GhanSpirits Of The Ghan
Judy Nunn
Random House AUS
2015, 359p
Copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Blurb {courtesy of the publisher/}:

It is 2001 and as the world charges into the new Millennium, a century-old dream is about to be realised in the Red Centre of Australia: the completion of the mighty Ghan railway, a long-lived vision to create the ‘backbone of the continent’, a line that will finally link Adelaide with the Top End.

But construction of the final leg between Alice Springs and Darwin will not be without its complications, for much of the desert it will cross is Aboriginal land.

Hired as a negotiator, Jessica Manning must walk a delicate line to reassure the Elders their sacred sites will be protected. Will her innate understanding of the spiritual landscape, rooted in her own Arunta heritage, win their trust? It’s not easy to keep the peace when Matthew Witherton and his survey team are quite literally blasting a rail corridor through the timeless land of the Never-Never.

When the paths of Jessica and Matthew finally cross, their respective cultures collide to reveal a mystery that demands attention. As they struggle against time to solve the puzzle, an ancient wrong is awakened and calls hauntingly across the vastness of the outback . . .

About four years ago I attended an author event with Judy Nunn at my local library. She’s a passionate and engaging speaker and I bought four of her books that day and acquired another 4 not long after. When I read that her latest book was going to be about the Ghan railway which finally connected Adelaide and Darwin by rail in 2004 I knew that I had to read it. I would love to travel on the Ghan – it takes 54 hours to go from Adelaide to Darwin and I can only imagine how different most of scenery when travelling through the middle must be to everything I’ve ever experienced. Like the east to west train the Indian-Pacific, travel on the Ghan is pretty pricey – enough to put it out of my price range. The cheapest option Adelaide – Darwin is about $2000 and considering I can fly to Darwin for probably less than $200 on a good day, the Ghan is clearly not about getting from A to B. It’s about the experience so onto the bucket list it goes, for hopefully one day when I can do it properly.

The extension of the railway from Alice Springs in the middle of Australia to Darwin in the north would’ve been a delicate operation probably not faced by the construction of the Adelaide to Alice section due to the negotiations that took place with Aboriginal elders. The tracks crossed through land given back to the indigenous people and there had to be numerous discussions about places of spiritual importance. The role of Jessica in the book is such a negotiator, a liason between the local people and the engineers and surveyor teams.

I found Jessica a fascinating character – a half Aboriginal, half Irish girl raised in Sydney’s inner west in the late 70s and 80s but also taught her mother’s mother tongue of Arunta. Described by her father as an ‘exotic mix’ Jess lost her mother at a young age but her father continued to foster her appreciation and connection to her heritage, taking her to find her mother’s relatives when she finished school. She’d already made the decision to study her culture at university and becoming more connected to it was just confirmation that she was doing the right thing. I really enjoyed learning a little bit about some of the culture of the local indigenous groups, such as the way in which courtesies were observed during meetings as well as some of the things they found important and sacred.

Woven in is the tale of an event that happened in the late 1800’s and the way in which it comes to impact on the modern day story was really interesting. At first I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my sort of thing, because I tend towards practicality rather than spirituality but the way in which it unfolded just became so intriguing that I ended up getting right into it. I appreciated the different elements that Nunn incorporated into this part of the story, such as the Afghan cameleers who are such a big part of the history of central Australia.

Spirits of the Ghan is written with sensitivity and respect to Aboriginal beliefs and culture. The setting is vividly described  – despite having never visited the centre I found it easy to picture the construction of the Ghan as well as what some of the sacred sites described might look like. I liked Jess and Matt’s interactions, although it does take a while for their parts of the book to come together.

Now I really need to get to the rest of my Judy Nunn books, which are still sitting patiently on my TBR shelf. It’s so hard to find time to read old books when new ones keep showing up! But with every book of hers I read, I realise how well she can construct a story and I definitely need to get to the others. Going to make it a reading resolution for 2016 to read a couple from her backlist!


Book #169 of 2015


Spirits of the Ghan  is book #67 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2015


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