In brief: In the late 1970s, the Northern Territory is a rugged place, where the people are at the whim of the weather. Despite this, Sybil starts a book club to build friendships for her and her daughter-in-law.
The good: The friendships between the women and the look at life not that long ago in the Aussie outback.
The not-so-good: Some of the things that happen to the characters are very, very sad.
Why I chose it: Thanks to Hachette, who know I enjoy a good Aussie story.
Setting: Northern Territory, Australia
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Books set in Australia’s Northern Territory are few and far between, so I was really entranced by the premise of Sophie Green’s The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club. Not only is it set in the NT, but it’s set in the late 1970s/early 1980s which is a whole world away thanks to advances in technology. Back then, stations (aka ranches) were truly isolated – no internet, no satellite with only a party line phone (great for spreading intimate details about your family) and the mail. But in the wet (monsoon) season, you can be completely isolated from even that for months. Sybil is used to all that, as she’s lived on Fairvale station for years. But when her son Ben brings home a new English bride, it’s time for things to change. Sybil knows that Kate won’t be used to the isolation or weather, so decides to start a book club. To it, she invites old friend Rita (now working for the Royal Flying Doctor Service out of Alice Springs), station hand Della from America and housewife Sallyanne. All the women bring their own problems to the book club, but through friendship they can work through them all.
And boy, do a lot of things happen to the women in this book. None of them are spared heartache and major events! If anyone thought that living in the outback was boring, think again… It’s a harsh environment which Sophie Green clearly shows but the women have personal dramas to add on top of that. Kate has her own worries about falling pregnant and Sallyanne tries to hide an abusive husband – and that’s just what we find out at the start! Ever the matriarch, Sybil tries to help them all through it by enabling meetings, offers of work and support. And when she needs help herself, it’s the other members of the book club who help her out. The theme of friendship is exceptionally strong in this novel, particularly as the isolated setting is stressed. The Territory kind of feels like another main character is this novel, the one who decides on the fates of all the characters…
Speaking of the characters, I bet it’s not an accident that all the main characters are women, and strong ones at that. Sybil is clearly a strong character, but she helps the quieter women like Kate and Sallyanne find their inner strength to accept, speak up and move on. Most of the male characters are supporting, blending into the background somewhat. We see the full range of male characters, from supportive and modern (Ben and Joe, Kate and Sybil’s husbands) to downright sexist and piggish (Sallyanne’s husband). This is a novel that celebrates the strength of the female spirit…truly ‘womanning up’ as the hashtag says through thick and thin!
The plot of the novel is crammed with events, and nobody is spared. One subplot I would have liked to have explored a little more is why Sybil’s son Lachlan hated the rest of his family so much. What made him spurn his family and home? Why couldn’t he talk about it? I would have loved to know a little more about this enigma and why he chose to distance himself from his Territory life. I did enjoy the book club subplot and was pleasantly surprised to see that I’d read most of their book choices (especially as I wasn’t even born then). As happens with all good book clubs, there was less of a focus on the book as time went on which I did miss. I found the different takes on The Thorn Birds fascinating, so would have loved to have read more. But we can’t have everything and I need to seek out The Far Pavilions now.
Overall, The Inaugural Meeting of the Fairvale Ladies Book Club is a light, fascinating read with engaging characters and a non-stop plot. A great experience of women getting things done!