All The Books I Can Read

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Review: The Last Of The Bonegilla Girls by Victoria Purman

on May 21, 2018

The Last Of The Bonegilla Girls
Victoria Purman
Harlequin MIRA
2018, 415p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

The war is over, but her fight for a new life in Australia is about to begin…

1954: When sixteen-year-old Hungarian Elizabeta arrives in Australia with her family, she is hoping to escape the hopelessness of life as a refugee in post-war Germany, a life where every day was lived in fear.

Her first stop is the Bonegilla Migrant Camp on the banks of the Murray in rural Victoria, a temporary home for thousands of new arrivals, all looking for work and a better life. There, Elizabeta becomes firm friends with the feisty Greek Vasiliki; quiet Italian Iliana; and the adventurous Frances, the daughter of the camp’s director.

In this vibrant and growing country, the Bonegilla girls rush together towards a life that seems full of promise, even as they cope with the legacy of war, the oppressive nature of family tradition and ever-present sorrow. So when a ghost from the past reaches out for Elizabeta and threatens to pull her back into the shadows, there is nothing that her friends wouldn’t do to keep her safe: no action too extreme, no confidence too dark.

But secrets have a way of making themselves known and lies have a way of changing everything they touch. Can the Bonegilla girls defeat their past? Or has it finally come to claim them?

These days, one in 20 Australians have links to Bonegilla, a migrant centre where those new to the country after WWII were trained and processed before being allocated jobs. According to the website about the Bonegilla experience, more than 300,000 migrants passed through its doors between 1947-1971, mostly from European backgrounds with little to no English. In The Last Of The Bonegilla Girls Hungarian Elizabeta, Greek Vasiliki and Italian Iliana are all there at the same time, waiting for their fathers to be granted jobs or for them to have adequate accomodations so that they can go and live with them. Along with Frances, the daughter of Bonegilla’s director, the four of them bond. Only one of the three migrant girls speaks any English and so Frances takes it upon herself to teach them, better equipping them for their new home once they eventually leave Bonegilla.

What follows is a story that follows all four girls for decades as their lives diverge and come back together time and time again. They move to different states, they get married, have children, keep secrets. Sometimes their communication wavers but their bond is always there. What’s also very strong is the experience of being new to a country, one very different from the old one. The Europeans face the weight of parental expectations in many different ways, expected to marry within their culture and often to men they barely even know. This is at odds with practices in their new homes and the girls were young enough when they came to Australia to become accustomed to its way of life and the differences between that and how their parents expect them to be.

My husband is a first generation born Australian (I’m a seventh) but he was born a bit later than the setting for this story and surprisingly enough, did not face that sort of pressure to marry someone from his cultural background. In fact neither he nor his brothers married Italians although one branch of cousins moved from a small country town to a suburb in Melbourne and they all married Italians, some of which may have been family facilitated. I felt that this book really addressed those sorts of issues really well – that family conditioning, the time from their original country and always wanting to make their parents happy and do what they wanted, versus the time they had spent in Australia and a bit more of a taste of freedom. I enjoyed the way the book would skip forward and check in at various points in the women’s lives. It enabled the reader to keep up with all of the important moments, the ups and the downs but without getting bogged down in the day to day of four women.

Australia has always liked to think of itself as an enlightened country, with strong protests against any racism but ask anyone who came from somewhere ‘different’ and they’ll probably tell you another story. Part of the reason my husband never learned his parent’s language is because that was just another thing that made you a target at school. Elizabeta certainly notices looks and whispers when she speaks German and all of the girls are harassed and insulted one day during a trip from Bonegilla to the shops. A lot is made of ‘assimilation’ as well, getting them to slide seamlessly into Australian society and this is something that has always interested me. What is a successful ‘assimilation’? Is it speaking English? Is it having a job and contributing to society? Is it just abiding by the laws of the country or the laws and the customs? Why is this such a desired thing? People from other countries bring their experiences and knowledge with them and there are many things you’d never want to be forgotten or left behind. So much of Australia’s actual ‘culture’ is because of the many cultures that have come here to make up our current identity. I enjoyed the inner debate this book presented to me as I put myself in the character’s shoes, trying to imagine how I’d feel in those new and unfamiliar situations and torn between the ways of the old country and that of the new. It was so admirable how in the days of pre-internet and mobile phones, these four women kept in contact over so many years and didn’t allow those friendships to fade into nothingness. All of the women are so clearly defined too, which can be difficult sometimes with books that switch back and forth between characters. This was another really entertaining read from Victoria Purman.

8/10

Book #91 of 2018

 

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