All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Mystery Woman by Belinda Alexandra

on September 11, 2020

The Mystery Woman
Belinda Alexandra
Harper Collins AUS
2020, 416p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

In a small town, everyone is watching… She had thought Shipwreck Bay was simply a remote town where people were bored senseless with their little lives. Now she saw its virtuous facade hid something darker, more sinister.

Rebecca Wood takes the role as postmistress in a sleepy seaside town, desperate for anonymity after a scandal in Sydney. But she is confronted almost at once by a disturbing discovery – her predecessor committed suicide.

To add to her worries, her hopes for a quiet life are soon threatened by the attentions of the dashing local doctor, the unsettling presence of a violent whaling captain and a corrupt shire secretary, as well as the watchful eyes of the town’s gossips. Yet in spite of herself she is drawn to the enigmatic resident of the house on the clifftop, rumoured to have been a Nazi spy.

Against the backdrop of the turbulent sea, Rebecca is soon caught up in the dangerous mysteries that lie behind Shipwreck Bay’s respectable net curtains.

I’ve read one of Belinda Alexandra’s books before and really enjoyed it so I was very keen to read this. Set in a small Australian seaside town after the Second World War, Rebecca has taken a job as postmistress. She needed to get out of Sydney after the end of relationship that would be scandalous if it were to be leaked in the press and so she hopes that the small, quite isolated/insular community is the perfect place to lay low.

From the moment she arrives, Rebecca discovers that life won’t be that easy. The small town is full of people curious about her single state – unusual for a woman in her early thirties. There’s outright hostility from some and her beauty attracts a lot of attention from the men, both single and otherwise. But Rebecca is determined to build a life for herself here and that means befriending the ladies and making sure they have no reason to suspect her of suspicious behaviour with their husbands. There’s also the mystery of why a predecessor, postmistress of Shipwreck Bay some twenty years, committed suicide. And Rebecca soon discovers that it was a double tragedy. As well as that, there’s a brewing feud in the town between the whalers and a man who would see the practice banned, a man of German origin who was arrested and incarcerated for being a spy in the war.

This is part mystery, part social commentary in a lot of parts. Rebecca is a single woman in a time when it wasn’t ‘the norm’ and especially at her age. She’s only early thirties but that in the 1950s was definitely verging into spinster territory although she’s not without a lot of interest from the local men. She needed to escape Sydney in order to protect herself and she’s hoping that this place will be remote enough that she won’t be discovered and exposed for her previous life. There’s rather a lot about double standards in here – how women were/are held to much higher standards. For example, it’s almost expected that a wealthy, connected man would have a mistress but for a woman to be the mistress, there must be something wrong with her for her to engage in such morally bankrupt behaviour. Such women are a threat to the very idea of a family, according to some of the more pious voices.

I have to admit, I didn’t know much about whaling in Australia given as a practice, it stopped before I was born. Now a lot of Australia is concerned with anti-whaling activities, protecting our waters and also even waters further afield. Whale watching is a large tourism industry, attracting both locals and foreign visitors. It was strange to think of it being such a big industry, given they’ve been somewhat protected my entire life. Some species were hunted almost to extinction. From what this book describes it sounds like quite an unpleasant industry, both the harpooning of the whales and the treatment of the carcasses thereafter. But it was a huge part of the town and even to turn a nose up at the smell was seen as being unsupportive of the local community, who relied heavily on the industry. This is something that Rebecca learns when she first arrives in the town and it’s also the reason that Stefan Otto is so much at odds with the town – as well as being of German heritage, he’s also vocal against the whalers and campaigns for the reduction of the practice and the turning from whale oil to other products, such as canola or flaxseed.

This is also a rather frank look at public persona vs private personality and how the person you think is an upstanding member of society can fool everyone and be the very opposite. I thought this part of the book was very well done, particularly the last 100-150 pages where Alexandra ramps up the tension as Rebecca comes to the slow, horrifying realisation that she’s gotten someone completely wrong and now her life is in danger.

I enjoyed this but it did feel a bit slow at the start for me. It’s over 400p and a lot of the early part is descriptions of outfits and meetings with people in the town. The latter part of the book though is excellent and there was a lot in here that I did find really interesting, such as the information about whaling and the exploration of attitudes towards women in the 1950s.

Enjoyable and I definitely have some other Belinda Alexandra novels that I want to read.


Book #179 of 2020

The Mystery Woman is book #68 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

3 responses to “Review: The Mystery Woman by Belinda Alexandra

  1. I’ve read most of Belinda Alexandra’s novels and enjoyed them all. She is lengthy and descriptive but on the other hand, she’s pretty good at sweeping you away. Fathoms is a really good book if you’re interested at all about the history of whaling. I found it quite illuminating. I’m really looking forward to reading this one. Hopefully up next!

  2. Marg says:

    I am really curious to read this one given that it is being billed as a departure from her normal book style

  3. Linda Moore says:

    I’ve never read this author. This one does sound very appealing.
    Thanks for sharing.

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