The Family Secret by Fiona Palmer

In brief: Kim’s in a man drought until two very different men enter her life – Charlie, local insurance man and reclusive Harry. As two tales are told across two time periods, will secrets come to light?

The good: Blends rural romance with the darker past of Australia – and brings some issues to light.

The not-so-good: Sometimes the two plots felt a bit too distant.

Why I chose it: Thanks to Penguin Australia for the eARC – I always look forward to reading Fiona’s books.

Year: 2016

Pages: 384

Publisher: Penguin Australia

Setting: Rural Western Australia

My rating: 9 out of 10

Fiona Palmer is an author I can always rely on to deliver a good story. More recently, she’s been branching out from rural romance to encompass bigger, more topical issues in her stories. The Family Secret combines a modern day rural romance with a darker part of history that some of Australia would like to forget – the Vietnam War. The veterans on their return were scarred and faced the wrath of the people, who ignored that the soldiers were conscripts (i.e. not volunteers). The soldiers were forgotten by others, but their pain and suffering lives on. It’s a heavy subject to tackle, but Palmer does it with understanding and compassion in the character of Harry.

Harry and John met up in Vietnam. Gradually, John’s story is told from his life as a newlywed on the farm to being drafted for national military service. His family left the farm and his dream to be a farmer was shattered. We read more about his time as a ‘nasho’ (National Serviceman) and then as a new soldier in Vietnam. Then, the aftermath of war…

Now Harry lives in solitude, helping out on an old mate’s farm. He’s virtually unknown to the townspeople and when Kim needs to shelter at Harry’s place one night, her family worries about the rumours they’ve heard about Harry. Kim and Harry strike up a friendship over their shared love of the land. Both characters are hurting. Kim’s had a bad run with men – her unrequited love is marrying someone else and previous boyfriends have had some substantial things to hide. So when she meets the slightly older Charlie, she’s interested but cautious. Charlie is in town for a new job, but he’s also trying to find out the truth of an old envelope found in his mum’s possessions…

Fans of The Saddler Boys will recognise familiar characters – Nat and Billy and Kim herself. If you haven’t read Nat’s story, it really doesn’t matter because you get the added bonus of the wedding! I enjoyed getting to know Kim better – from the previous book, I only knew her as farmer and star sculpture welder. She’s a tough cookie, but with secret pain. Charlie was a lot more straightforward and honest, which made it easy for me to trust him as a reader (Kim, not so much – she’s suspicious with good reason).

John’s story was very interesting. I haven’t read many books on Australians in Vietnam and the aftereffects. My knowledge comes from friends of my parents and people I’ve met. I think Fiona Palmer has tackled what is still a sensitive subject to some with tact and dignity. She showed great respect for both John and Harry. My only negative is that the two storylines seemed disjointed at times. I did work out what the secret was later, but initially I wondered why we were hearing so much about John and what his link was to the story, besides being a friend of Harry’s.

As always, Fiona’s books are a delight to read. One (or two, three or four) chapters are never enough! She creates great, true Aussie characters that represent rural culture in combination with a rollicking story. I was glad to have the time to devour this book properly.

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