Joy Dettman's compelling saga is set in the rural Australian logging town of Woody Creek in the early 1900s, when Gertrude Foote discovers a pregnant woman near the railroad, unconscious and near death. She doesn't survive, but the child does, and is soon taken in by Gertrude's daughter, Amber, and her husband, Norman, who have recently lost their son in childbirth. The fairy tale turns dark, though, as young Jenny suffers under the neglect and abuse of her new mother. Diedre Rubenstein's performance is sharp and precise, bringing deft characterization and heightening the emotions of this brutal tale.
On a balmy midsummer's evening in 1923, a young woman - foreign, dishevelled, and heavily pregnant - is found unconscious just off the railway tracks in the tiny logging community of Woody Creek. The town midwife, Gertrude Foote, is roused from her bed when the woman is brought to her door. Try as she might, Gertrude is unable to save her, but the baby lives.
When no relatives come forth to claim the infant, Gertrude's daughter, Amber - who has recently lost a son in childbirth - and her husband, Norman, take the child in. In the ensuing weeks, Norman becomes convinced that God has sent the baby to their door, and in an act of reckless compassion and lonely desperation, he names the baby Jennifer and registers her in place of his son.
Loved by some but scorned by more, including her stepmother and sister, Jenny survives her childhood and grows into an exquisite and talented young woman. But who were her parents? And why does she so strongly resemble an old photograph of Gertrude's philandering husband?
Spanning two momentous decades and capturing rural Australia's complex and mysterious heart, Pearl in a Cage is the new novel by one of our most talented storytellers.
©2009 Joy Dettman.; (P)2009 Bolinda Publishing Pty Ltd
I have given this book 3 stars based on my PERSONAL response to the book - other readers/listeners may be less idealistic than myself. I found it a little too black - I was hoping to see Jenny rise above the many adversities she encounters - perhaps she does, but this is left entirely to the reader's imagination. For me, a description of her adventures away from the town of her birth - even as a summary in an epilogue - would have been sufficient to satisfy my urge for justice. Perhaps Ms Dettman will outline this in a sequel? If so, I'll definitely be listening to that one :)
The other reason I gave 3 stars is due to Jenny's sudden catapult into a different reality near the end of the book. I felt somewhat disoriented by the dizzying turn of events and was left wondering whether outside pressure forced Ms Dettman to close the story in this way. Conversely, it could just be that I found the altered tense (a rapid transition from present to retrospective) too harsh for my liking. Nonetheless, this is a brilliant tale and a sober depiction of the domestic, social and cultural mores surrounding a disadvantaged individual living between the wars in a remote Australian town.
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