A quick rundown… The story of four very different women, their incarceration and transportation as convicts to Sydney, Australia.
Strengths: All the main characters are likeable; the plot is interesting and the sense of history tangible.
Weaknesses: I want to read the second book in the series – now! (Please).
Publisher: Harper Collins
Setting: England, the high seas and New South Wales, Australia
Rating: 9.5 out of 10
I always feel a sense of guilt when I’ve left a review book on the pile for some time, but this time I feel really, really guilty. Why? Because Behind the Sun is a fantastic book, exactly the type of historical fiction that I really enjoy reading. The only commiseration I have for letting it linger is that I don’t have to wait as long for the second book in this series to be released (sometime in 2013).
If you enjoyed The Potato Factory or Australian colonial history, you’ll love this book. It is loaded with historical detail (I would have read this book more quickly had I not stopped to do further research on Seven Dials, prison hulks, Newgate Gaol and Parramatta Female Factory amongst others) and the characters are all distinctive and multifaceted with engaging (if sad) stories to tell. Let me tell you about each of them…
Friday Woolfe is a prostitute known to the law. When the theft of a gentleman’s goods is discovered, she’s sent to gaol with the promise of transportation to the far flung Sydney Town. Behind a cunning knowledge of London’s underworld lies a good heart and a sense of justice to her friends. Harrie Clarke is a thief – drawn to desperation to try to feed her mother and siblings. She’s soft and kind-hearted, the mother hen of the group. Sarah Morgan was a jeweller, but is now one of the best thieves in London. When the leader of the gang dobs her in, she’s sent to prison. Alert and calculating, she never misses an opportunity. Finally, Rachel Winter had eloped with a soldier only to find herself on trial for theft. Naïve, but with a wild streak in her, she is the youngest of the crew who Friday, Harrie and Sarah all look out for.
The plot is simply summarised, but compelling – each of the girls’ crimes, time in Newgate, the ship journey and arrival in Sydney. The friendship between the girls is strong and they look out for each other against fellow inmates, unscrupulous men and the turnkeys (or prison wardens). Various events lead to the need for money and protection, with each of the girls learning how far they will go for a true friend.
Challinor’s strengths beside her characters include the ability to retell history in a fascinating way. Like I mentioned previously, I did some of my own research just because I wanted to find out more about the times when Friday, Harrie, Sarah and Rachel lived – what did the places look like? What other things were they expected to do in the gaol? She has really brought the period to life. There are also enough plot threads loose for ample material for the sequel, Girl of Shadows. (I must admit though, I really want to know more about an event regarding Mr Downey from the ship and his findings to see if my own suspicions are correct!) There will be four books in this series and I’m really looking forward to reading them to learn more about my country’s history – and see what the girls get up to!
(I would have included this book in Australian Literature Month, but Deborah Challinor is from New Zealand originally).