Eleanor Limprecht, The Coast (#BookReview)

I love to read Author’s Notes, Afterwords, or whatever they are called, at the end of novels, and particularly so when the novel is historical fiction. This is because these notes will often explain the author’s thought process, the line they have drawn between fiction and fact, the sources used, the level and type of research undertaken, and so on. It helps me understand “how” to read the book, if that makes sense. I was consequently pleased that Eleanor Limprecht had provided such information at the end of her fourth novel, The Coast, which is set in the former Coast Hospital lazaret in Little Bay, Sydney. This hospital was established in the 1880s for the treatment of infectious diseases, including small pox, tuberculosis, and the subject of this novel, leprosy (or Hansen’s Disease).

The Coast is set primarily in the first three decades of the twentieth century, and focuses on the story of Hilda/Alice who is nine when she is brought to the lazaret. However, while she provides the novel’s narrative and emotional centre, hers is not the only story told. We hear about other members of her family, including her mother Nellie/Clea who is at the Coast when she arrives. We also hear about one of the Hospital’s doctors, Will Stenger, who takes special interest in his lazaret patients. And, we have a story that somewhat parallels Alice’s, that of Jack/Guy, a Yuwaalaraay man, who also ends up at the lazaret, though not until he is an adult. I should explain here the dual names: leprosy patients would be given (or choose) a new name when they entered the hospital because, as Alice’s mother tells her, it’s better for their family if they disappear, “it’s better that no-one can find us”. Leprosy, at the time, was a reviled disease and sufferers were secluded under the Leprosy Act of 1890.

What author afterwords tell us

So, Limprecht’s words. I wanted them because I wanted to know whether she would address her First Nations character and, of course, being the thorough historical fiction writer she is, she does indeed discuss the issue. She had advice and feedback from Yuwaalaraay reader Nardi Simpson (whose Song of the crocodile I’ve reviewed) and Gamilaraay and Yuwaalaraay reader Frances Peters. She visited Angledool, Jack’s home, with the help of local First Nations people, and was shown around the Goondee Keeping Place at Lightning Ridge by First Nations people there. Her manuscript was also read by First Nations people associated with the La Perouse Aboriginal Land Council. All this supports my sense that she has rightly and respectfully included First Nations experience in her story.

Limprecht’s words provide other insights too, but I’ll mention just two of them. One is that she acknowledges various grants, including the Neilma Sydney Literary Travel Grant (see my post), which helped her visit another lazaret location, Peel Island. The other is that she acknowledges the History of Medicine Library at the Royal Australasian College of Physicians where she “found the records that inspired this story”. This interested me because the story contains many details about the lives of the patients at the lazaret, details that were so specific that I felt (and hoped) they were based on documented records – on reports, letters, and so on. This suggests that they were.

“nothing to look forward to” (Alice)

Limprecht also tells us in her words that she got the idea for this novel while researching her second novel, Long Bay (my review), making it before 2015. However, she also tells us that she finished writing it during the pandemic, which helped her “consider the continuing repercussions of stigmatising illness and the long-term effects of isolation”.

So now, the novel itself. The story is told in first person and third person voices – Alice’s in her voice, with the stories of the other three in third person. These four stories are interspersed with each other, and are told chronologically, but each starts at a different point in time, beginning with Jack (1905), then Alice (1910), Nellie (1892) and Will (1910), until they coalesce in 1926. Jack’s story encompasses his experiences as a stolen child and a soldier in the Middle East in World War 1. Through him, Limprecht ensures that First Nations’ lives are part of the life of the time she’s chronicling, something that many of our majority-culture-written histories and historical fiction have consistently omitted.

Jack’s story – of being taken from his family, returning to it, going to war and returning as an amputee who soon after ends up at Peel Island – conveys not just these facts, but the emotional impact of being stolen, of displacement, of racism (albeit his injured returned soldier status sometimes earned him begrudging recognition.) By sending him to Peel Island, Limprecht also documents the differential treatment at that lazaret between “white” and “others” (or, the “coloured camp”). This is a difference that he does not experience at The Coast under the more humane Dr Will.

Alice’s story follows, presumably, a typical trajectory of those who were isolated at a young age and spent the rest of their lives that way. (It’s a coming-of-age story as moving and as tragic as that of Anne Frank’s real one). As quarantine places go, The Coast lazarets – men’s and women’s – are humane. The patients live in cottages, they have access to a beach where they can swim and fish, and they can socialise with each other (though the women’s lazaret does not have a communal cottage like the men’s has!) But, “it’s no place to grow up”. Alice is an intelligent young woman, who quickly engages us with her warmth and honesty, but she also articulates the physical and emotional experience of this disease. Told first person, her story of resilience and resignation carries the novel.

Nellie’s and Will’s stories add additional depth and breadth to the lazaret community and thus the history. Both appear in the epilogue dated 1967. It didn’t feel narratively necessary to me, but historically it rounds out how leprosy treatment progressed and what happened to the Coast lazaret.

The coast is the sort of historical fiction I like, a well-researched, expressively-written story about an historical time and place I know little about, one that is worth knowing. It reminds us how far we have, or haven’t, come in our management of feared diseases, like AIDS, like COVID-19. It evokes with warmth and clarity the costs of ostracism and isolation. And, it puts First Nations people into the historical frame – naturally. A good read.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also liked this novel.

Eleanor Limprecht
The Coast
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879402

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

26 thoughts on “Eleanor Limprecht, The Coast (#BookReview)

  1. You will gasp at my effrontery (as do I !); but I should have preferred it if you simply wrote a review of the book, and then of your strong feelings about our first nation peoples as relevant to it. These feelings being interwoven throughout make you seem, to me, more grumpy than anything else.
    Please forgive me, ST: but that’s not a feeling I am used to coming away with after reading a review by you ..

    • Ha, I wondered if my approach would irritate some M-R. I’m surprised though that it made me sound grumpy. I intended to sound the opposite. Pleased and impressed!

      Oh, and of course I forgive you! I like that you are honest with me. That’s important.

      • Sorry: it’s clear you’re pleased and impressed by the author’s work, ST.
        The .. um .. less positive impression I gained was simply through the references dotted throughout re first nation peoples.

        • What was less positive about the First Nations references? I’m intrigued because maybe my intention was not clear? There’s a lot of discussion these days about who can tell what story and I wanted to explore that properly. I realised though that I was bucking convention by starting that way.

        • It seems to me there’s quite a lot of finger-wagging at writers – sorry, authors – who do not do as Limprecht did when writing about them, basically. Listen, this is just me: noone else has raised a syllabub of negativity !!

        • Got it. From my point of view, it’s all about power. For too long the story has been in the hands of white writers who have had their perspective – sometimes brutal, sometimes ignorant, and sometimes well-intended. But now that FN writers are getting published it’s time for us to recognise that. I do think non-FN writers should not be criticised for writing FN characters into their stories because it’s important that they not be invisible, but I also think it needs to done with thought, care and preferably with consultation.

          I’ve probably said this before!!

  2. Thanks for the mention!
    I see that I had written my review as the Omicron wave was coming, and I was conscious of death stalking us and that isolation was really our only protection. So it was a book that ‘pressed buttons for me.’

    • I can understand that Lisa … I always felt a little mixed about isolation. I absolutely supported the policy while the situation was critical for our systems but I also felt it was problematic from the individual’s point of view. (That said there were, for Mr Gums and me, some pleasures in forced isolation for awhile, but we were lucky people in terms of security!)

      • Absolutely. Isolation in a house with a garden and a surfeit of nearby parks in which to meet a walking buddy for daily exercise is a different experience entirely to doing home school while working from home etc.
        That’s a social justice issue…

        • It sure is!

          Though even those who were comfortable, secure and safe were still challenged if they had a family and jobs. I wouldn’t have liked it in that situation!

        • Have you read Wendy Scarfe’s The Day They Shot Edward set in 1916? The main thrust of the novel is about the conscription debate, but Wendy is so good at setting the scene and knowing the details of her setting’s period, she has the boy Matthew’s father confined to a sealed-off part of the house because he has a highly infectious lung disease and this was the way it was managed in poor families. And once the numbers got out of hand in Sydney, it’s the way people had to manage family members with Covid too.
          (We were ‘lucky’. We both caught it at the same time, when lockdown ended and we were at a restaurant that wasn’t taking its responsibility for clean air circulation seriously.)

        • Oops, and we got it at the same time too, pretty sure from a restaurant though can’t be 100% certain. It did make it easier to manage – no need to isolate from each other!

        • We do know the source, partly because we hadn’t been anywhere else —we were doing Do-It-Yourself Lockdown well after the official lockdowns were over — and there were 10 people who got it at the same wine club dinner and we were all sitting together.

  3. This novel sounds like one I’d like to read, now that I’ve had the cataracts removed and got a pair of reading glasses. Before and while recovering I found reading a strain and have been bingeing on the wonderful offerings on television. And it just so happens that the latest treat has been the fictionalised treatment of the AIDS epidemic called In Our Blood on the ABC. Well worth watching if you haven’t already – on a similar theme and very imaginatively produced.

  4. I admire Eleanor Limprecht both as a lovely, gentle, person and skilled writer. I first met her years ago when she was giving a workshop on turning research into a novel, and then bumped into her at several writing events. It is great to see her gain a top-tier publisher and have such positive feedback on her books.

    Curiously, my husband’s grandmother spent a year in Long Bay in the early 1900s, and my own aunt spent months in The Coast Hospital in 1927 in the infectious diseases section for Scarlet Fever. Eleanor has a knack for choosing the subjects that have deeper meaning for me. I haven’t read this one yet, but it is definitely on my list.

    • Thanks Gwendoline. How lovely to have met her. She certainly chooses really interesting topics. And how interesting that you have family experience of The Coast Hospital. Did your aunt ever speak of her experience. I won’t ask about your mother’s grandmother!!

      • I always knew she’d been there, but it was the culmination of three years in the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes – a topic that was definitely off the table.
        I make reference to it in my as-yet unpublished manuscript, Finding Florence & Lucy.

        My husband’s great-grandmother (missed a generation in earlier comment) is on the public record. Just before Christmas 1909 she got twelve months light labour for receiving stolen goods i.e. one pair of boots she then pawned; by which time she was fifty with several children. The details are in the newspapers if you know where to look. Her father had died the year before and her husband died eighteen months after her conviction. They were working-class, he was a boilermaker.

  5. I always find myself drawn more to historical fiction that is in a specific time, place, and culture, rather than those generic “something romantic during WWII” historical fiction novels. Do you wish the author’s notes appeared at the beginning of the book so you had a sense of how to enter the novel, rather than looking back over what you read with a new frame?

    • Yes, me too Melanie.

      And good question, but no, not really. Often if there’s a Foreword or Introduction, I will read it at the end, or, occasionally, if I’ve read some and feel I need to know, I’ll read them in the middle, but to start with, I like to see how the book is going to play out and think about what it l is want to know.

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