REVIEW: The Unforgiving City by Maggie Joel

In brief: In 1899 Sydney, the residents of the Dunlevy house find things out that will change their lives. They each react in their own way with disastrous consequences.

The good: A great insight into colonial Sydney, pre-Federation.

The not-so-good: The ending is a little fast and neat.

Why I chose it: Enjoy Maggie Joel’s novels. Thanks to Allen & Unwin for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 425

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Setting: Primarily Sydney, Australia

Rating: 9 out of 10

Maggie Joel always writes incredibly well researched historical novels and in this novel, she has turned her expertise to Australia. As well as being fascinating from a historical perspective, it’s a story of secrets, class and lack of communication.

Set in Sydney in 1899, the story follows a couple and their maid in the lead up to Federation. The colony is just over 100 years old and it’s funny to think people still had hang-ups about being descended from convicts or making their money from speculating on non-existent railways. It’s also to think that we are just over a hundred years from that point. The Dunlevys seem to have it all in Sydney. They are quite wealthy and live in a comfortable house by the water. Alasdair is a member of parliament with a small ministry and wife Eleanor is on a number of committees. Their personal life is somewhat strained after the loss of a child and they’ve drifted apart to the point where Alasdair has a mistress. Eleanor knows that after a note is sent to her anonymously and she is waiting for her time to strike. Downstairs, the Dunlevy’s maid Alice has her own problems as her sister returns from Melbourne alone and heavily pregnant. Milli is in trouble with both the law and loan sharks and Alice is desperate to help her and the baby.

Unfortunately for all three characters nothing goes as planned and there are some debatable decisions made along the way. While Sydney is in a kerfuffle over whether to vote for or against Federation, the characters are equally as agitated. What struck me most is how alone they are. Eleanor doesn’t really fit in with the fellow wives of parliamentarians and doesn’t enjoy the scandal of divorce as the others do – as she could be in the same boat very soon. She doesn’t have a friend to confide to. She can see that Alice has issues, but doesn’t reach out, instead chastising her for a poor work ethic. At least Alice has Mrs Flynn, the cook, who offers harsh but well-meaning advice. Eleanor doesn’t even have that, so she is left to ruminate on decisions that may have pushed her husband even further away. Like his wife, Alasdair can’t share his worries about being a minor, non-favourite member of parliament with anyone. His secretary is ambitious (maybe too much for his liking) and his job is a ruthless business. He too ruminates on the loss of closeness with his wife and the awkwardness of his current affair. Without support, Alice, Eleanor and Alasdair make fateful decisions – but will it be alright in the end?

The Unforgiving City is a dense novel, full of inner and outer struggles with class, politics, sex and relationships. For me, it was best read in large chunks so I could fully immerse myself in this constricting world and understand the battles. (The Melbourne versus Sydney is a debate that really still isn’t settled today). It’s well written with characters that are intriguing, even if not fully likeable. The ending was a little too fast for me, but it did give a hint into the Dunlevy’s future. Most of all, the research is impeccable. I never fail to learn from Maggie Joel’s novels in addition to being entertained.

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