It’s been a long time since I reviewed an audiobook or, more accurately, reviewed a book via its audiobook version. As I’ve said before, I don’t listen often to audiobooks, but last month Mr Gums and I did a long drive and so decided to listen to Nancy Cato‘s All the rivers run. I referred to this novel a few Monday Musings ago, because it was one of Australia’s early, successful adaptations for television.
Enough introduction though, time to talk about the book. Our audiobook contained the first book* of Philadelphia (Delie) Gordon’s saga. It starts her story when, in 1890 at the age of 13 she is orphaned in a shipwreck off the coast of Victoria. She is taken in by her dour aunt and more welcoming uncle who lead a spartan prospecting life at Kiandra in the Australian Alps. When her uncle Charles strikes it rich – that is he finds a large nugget of gold – the family (with her cousin, Adam, who is three years older than she) move to a sheep farm on the Murray River not far from Echuca. This first book, which is pretty much a coming-of-age story, finishes when Deli (as she prefers to be called) leaves home at the age of 17, after a tragedy has struck the family.
This is not really the sort of book I would normally read, though it is the sort of book I’d listen to on audiobook. Why so? Well, at the risk of being called a literary snob, I tend not to read sagas (whether they be historical fiction, fantasy or whatever). This is because their focus tends to be plot rather than style, structure, theme and, even perhaps, character development, though I know aficionados will argue with me and they will probably be right (to a degree!). Anyhow, there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just not what I prefer to read. However, such stories are perfect for listening to in the car. Literature requiring intense concentration is not a safe bet when you are driving (or even when you are navigating). Horses for courses, as they say.
Cato’s book, like good historical fiction, captures the social history of the era well, particularly the tail end of the gold rush, the 1890s depression, life along the Murray River for the pastoralists and paddle steamers, the challenges faced by women in a male dominated society. She also touches on the dispossession of the indigenous people, showing the women working as “house-girls” for the pastoralists and their all too often descent into prostitution, often as the result of being used by and bearing the children of their white male bosses. Cato was, apparently, an active campaigner for indigenous land rights as well as for conservation.
I enjoyed Cato’s vivid descriptions of the landscape. The plot is a little predictable and the characters are somewhat stereotypical – the welcoming, easy-going farmer, the tough wife, the handsome son champing at the parental bit – but not so much that they don’t engage. Delie in this first book, for example, is a believable young girl, orphaned and taken in essentially by strangers and then experiencing her first love. She’s bright but not brash, independent but not without uncertainties.
I enjoyed one little description in particular. At a moment when things are going wrong for Deli, Cato writes that “a pair of kookaburras laughed sardonically”. I liked this description because only recently I’d been thinking about the first white settlers in Australia and what they made of the birds here, many of whom can sound pretty raucous. I wondered, in particular, what they thought when they first heard a kookaburra’s “laugh” as we describe it. Sardonic, is a very good description of it!
Overall then, it’s an enjoyable read, if you enjoy historical sagas, are interested in life in country Australia in the 1890s – and particularly if you have a long drive ahead of you! You could do way worse …
All the rivers run: A river not yet tamed (Audio CD)
Read by Kate Hosking
6 hrs 15 mins on 5 discs
* Note: As far as I understand it, the three books in the trilogy were originally separately published as: All the rivers run (1958); Time, flow softly (1959); and But still the stream (1962). Recent editions, however, combine the three novels into one volume titled All the rivers run. I am not sure where the title A river not yet tamed comes from, but it looks like it might be Bolinda’s title for the first part of their recording of the trilogy.