In brief: Willow (aka “Banjo”) and Tom were inseparable growing up. But one move on one day separated them perhaps forever, until Willow’s return to the family station Paterson Downs. Now Willow confronts the letters Tom wrote her all those years ago – can they move on or should they move back?
The good: Absolutely delightful, full of humour, emotion and spirit.
The not-so-good: Would have loved more of Tom’s letters to Willow.
Publisher: Michael Joseph (Penguin)
Setting: Mainly the Kimberley region of Western Australia
Rating: 9 out of 10
Oh, Dear Banjo. I’m not sure where to start with my review of this novel for fear it will turn into a gushing love letter to it. The letters in this book from hero Tom to heroine Willow (aka “Banjo”, her nickname for having the surname Paterson) are passionate and full of emotion. Just a young man pouring his heart out in raw words to the girl who he thought was a friend with the potential to be so much more. It was the letters that truly cemented this book’s place in my heart. I’m a sucker for spying on the personal, private lives of characters and Dear Banjo does that so well.
But the letters are only one small part of this novel. Dear Banjo is as much about friendship and finding your place in the world. Both Tom and Willow palpably grow as characters during the story so you can’t help but feel a little bit proud of them at the end for making it through the rollercoaster of emotions, drama and farming. It’s never boring and never over the top. I’d describe this as a great rural romance that truly celebrates the Kimberley way of life.
The book opens in Perth, which feels like a cold, grey, emotionless place for Willow. It’s easy to see from the start that she’s living a life only half-lived, buried in agricultural research thousands of kilometres away from her home in the north of the state. It’s always been planned that Willow would return to run the station that way, but a quick, forced retirement by her father has it happening a lot faster than she expected. There is just one thing holding Willow back – the demise of her friendship with Tom, whose family owns the neighbouring station. Tom wrote her a letter every week for a year when she left for university and Willow didn’t even open them, let alone reply after a fatal fracture in their relationship. On the plane home, Willow starts to open the letters and Tom’s decade old feeling pour out of the page.
When Willow returns to Mount Clair, the nearby town to Paterson Downs, everything comes back to life, colour and warmth seeping through the pages. It’s easy to see from the writing style that she feels that she’s truly home. But it’s not just the awkwardness with Tom Willow has to contend with, but the change to sustainable, organic cattle farming that puts a lot of noses out of joint on the station. To make it work, she needs to turn to the only other farmer in the region doing the same thing – Tom.
Sasha Wasley has created a wonderful story with rich characters. Both Tom and Willow are real and believable. There are no leaps of faith, just dramas big and small to work through. It’s a very believable romance between them, made stronger by the rebuilding of their strong friendship. I also liked the farming detail as it was told in a very interesting, conversational way and never boring (so many dramas). I’d like to think I learned something! The Kimberley setting was also beautifully rendered. It was great to feel the warmth and red dirt in the middle of winter!
I’d love to hear more of Willow’s sisters, Free and Beth who were supporting characters in the story and vastly different. Free is as her name suggests – a meandering, travelling artist who is on the verge of an artist in residency position at the end of Dear Banjo. Beth is vastly different – a determined, fiercely focused GP with a giant 4WD. What makes them tick?
Finally, I’d like to mention the delicious food in the novel – not what you’d expect of mass cooking for the station employees, but some of their meals had me drooling! So you can see that there is something for everyone in this novel – get on board and read a wonderful Aussie story.