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This short collection of ten interlinked stories tells of the experiences of the British women who came as settlers to Auckland in New Zealand in the late 19th century. From farmer’s wife to prostitute, baby-farmer to temperance campaigner, each story stands on its own. But there’s a red ribbon running through them, binding these women to each other even when they are unaware of it, their lives as linked as the stories about them. Themes run from story to story, of loneliness and belonging, of motherhood, of the gradual change from immigrant to settler.
The book starts with a new immigrant, a girl married off to an older man she barely knew, and uprooted from her life in England to live on an isolated farm in this new land. Through her, we see the strangeness of this new landscape and feel the nostalgia of the early settlers for the land they still think of as home. The second story takes us to her husband, but even in the rare circumstance that one of the stories focuses on a man, it’s still there primarily to cast light on the lives of the women. Burns portrays this as a very male-dominated society where women are still almost entirely subordinate. In fact the theme of prostitution runs strongly through the book, both overtly when we are taken inside the brothel, and more figuratively, when many of the women are defined by their value as sexual objects to men. The one weakness of the collection for me, in fact, is that all the men are portrayed very negatively – while Burns is not suggesting she is showing every aspect of this immigrant society, the slice she shows us is perhaps a little unbalanced.
(Attempts to attract women to colonial New Zealand began early. In this 1839 poster advertising the first sailing of a shipload of Scottish settlers, single women are offered free passage. From the collection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.)
Motherhood plays a major role in many of the stories, but not at all with a rosy glow around it. There is the prostitute who becomes pregnant and hopes against reason that the father will take responsibility. The woman who gives up her illegitimate child to a baby-farmer in order to marry another man. The baby-farmer, who takes in unwanted children for money, and then kills them, until one day a child steals through her defences. The childless widow, doing good works to keep her loneliness and longing at bay. The daughter, sexually brutalised by her mother’s new husband. But through it all, there is a sense of the strength of these women, surviving despite all that life throws at them.
The tone, however, is not irredeemably hopeless – it feels as though these women are on the cusp of change, that a new generation, native to this land as their mothers weren’t, may play a different role. Burns very subtly shows how attitudes change as people settle and communities form – the new immigrants filled with nostalgia for ‘home’, while the settlers are beginning to feel themselves to be New Zealanders and resenting newcomers making comparisons that are always to the detriment of the new country.
The final story is written by a Maori author, Shelly Davies, giving a different perspective. In truth, I’m not sure that this works well. It feels a little contrived – in fact, each time the Maoris were mentioned I couldn’t help feeling that the book was straying too far into ‘politically correct’ territory. There is a clear suggestion that Maori men treat their women far more respectfully than white men do theirs, and while there may be truth in this (I don’t know) the comparison feels a little too slick and overdrawn, and depends on acceptance that all white men behave as appallingly as the ones in these stories.
The quality of the writing is excellent, as is the depth of characterisation, especially given the limitations of length. The links between the stories are often loose but overall there is a kind of completion of a circle, taking us back almost to where we began. Individually I found most of the stories absorbing and intriguing, and some are intensely moving. But it’s when taken as a whole that the book has its full effect. Certainly recommended, and I look forward to reading more of the author’s work.
NB This book was provided for review by the author via NetGalley.