Jarulan by the River by Lily Woodhouse

In brief: Matthew Fenchurch is distraught after his son’s death. When his daughters arrive to visit the memorial, they set in place a change of events for Jarulan…

The good: Beautiful writing and I wish I could see the house!

The not-so-good: The ghost bits didn’t work too well for me.

Why I chose it: I love stories about big houses and complex families. Many thanks to Harper Collins for the copy.

Year: 2017

Pages: 425

Publisher: Harper Collins

Setting: New South Wales, Australia and New Zealand

Rating: 8 out of 10

I have a weakness for stories that involve big, old and grand houses almost as a character. Jarulan by the River has a massive homestead by the river in northern New South Wales, with rooms that speak of wild parties, madness and secrets. Add in a fractured family and servants with ambition. This novel combines all that and more (think some odd ghosts, secrets and hidden agendas). This is a grand, sweeping novel that takes the Fenchurch family from country graziers to wild tangents no one would have thought possible.

The story begins in 1917, as Matthew Fenchurch comes to terms with the death of his son on the battlefields of France. He feels that everything is lost to him as his wife is dead and his other son as good as. It’s just him and the servants. He hits upon the idea of building a memorial, which in turn brings his daughters and grandchildren to the family property, Jarulan, to see it. Meanwhile, his laundry maid Evie has decided she’s in love with Matthew and is planning the next step. But with Matthew’s daughters comes a stranger in German Rufina, who has designs of her own…

This is only the start of the story, with plots becoming more controversial as the women in the story all try to desperately put their own mark on Jarulan for Matthew or their own designs… It’s the women who leave the most powerful imprint on Jarulan and the story. Rufina is the strongest, most iron-willed of them all. She will stop at nothing to get what she wants, laying on the line big ticket items to ensure people do just as she wants. Evie is far more dreamy and scatterbrained. She’s no match for Rufina’s calculating ways and she knows it. But does she leave a lasting imprint on Jarulan? It seems that the true glue holding Jarulan together is Nance, cook and loyal servant. She’s seen it all, but will she intervene?

But the characters are at the will of the house and the ghosts that haunt it. Min, Matthew’s first wife, leaves a reminder in a room whose horrors are only hinted at. Eddie, Matthew’s wayward son, leaves behind a suite of room and instruments after his flight. Other ghosts, such a young girl, also appear to certain characters. Plus, there’s a huge room of taxidermy animals. I must admit that I couldn’t always get my head wrapped around who the ghosts were and why they were presenting themselves. Maybe the house held more secrets than even the current family knew about?

I was happy to let that go due to the beauty of the writing. Lily Woodhouse captures the scene perfectly – the heat, humidity, animals and insects. The characters feel almost secondary to the land, which you know will reign supreme in the end. I never tired of the descriptions of the birds and insects (except the spiders). She also gets deep into the minds of the characters, warts and all.

Jarulan by the River is complex, but rewarding. It’s a family saga that doesn’t follow conventional means, which makes it all the more interesting.

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