As 1900 draws to a close, Berylda Jones, having completed her university exams for entry to medicine is heading home to Bathurst for Christmas. Tragically, ‘home’ is where she and her beloved sister Greta live in terror, under the control of their sadistic Uncle Alec.
But this summer Berylda has a plan – borne out of desperation – to free herself and Greta from Alec for good, if she can only find the courage to execute it.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, just as Alec tightens his grip over the sisters, a stranger arrives at their gate – Ben Wilberry, a botanist, travelling west in search of a particular native wildflower, with his friend, the artist Cosmo Thompson.
Ben is at first oblivious to what depravity lies beyond this threshold and what follows is a journey that will take him and Berylda, Greta and Cosmo, out to the old gold rush town of Hill End – a tumbledown place with its own dark secrets – in search of a means to cure evil and a solution to what seems an impossible situation.
Against the tumultuous backdrop of Australian Federation and the coming of the Women’s Vote, Paper Daisies is a story of what it means to find moral courage, of a crime that must be committed to see justice done and a sweet love that grows against the odds.
Paper Daisies is one of those novels that quietly stuns you with the importance of its story. There is an undercurrent of suppression and desperation with both of the main characters, despite their status as high achieving individuals. Kelly doesn’t draw out the reasons for this either, she divulges quite early on, and the focus of the novel shifts to that of escape, and freedom, for both Berylda and Ben, although they are each escaping different things.
The novel switches between Berylda and Ben quite frequently, yet the changes are seamless, quite often within the same scene. The perspectives of both characters are offered in the first person, not a favourite of many readers, but in this case, I can’t see the novel having been written in any other way with success. This is a very internally focused story and the use of first person brought this to life with perfection. Kim Kelly is quite skilled as a writer though, because she managed to create a convincing and engaging world from the perspectives of only two people. I never felt as a reader that I was missing out on anything. It was very well done.
There was a distinctly Australian tone to this novel that I appreciated. The language and setting was all true to the era. I particularly enjoyed the little insights into Australian life at the time of Federation. The competitiveness of the states and the struggle for a national identity, a White Australian identity, were woven into the story intricately.
As to the story itself, the depravity that Berylda and Greta were living in, by the hand of their uncle, and the path to escape devised by Berylda. This was by no means a pretty historical about damsels in distress being rescued by progressive and considerate men. And therein lies its strength, because if that’s all it was, I probably wouldn’t have bothered with it. This is a story that will make some readers uncomfortable; its honesty and frank introspection gives you much to dwell on. The story may be set in 1900, but it could be from any era, right up to the modern day.
It is a novel that examines the suppression of women on a number of levels. But it is also a celebration of taking control and earning your own freedom. There are good men within the pages of this novel, as well as bad. And there are good women who find themselves compelled to do bad things to survive. It walks a fine line often, this internal struggle between good and evil particularly pertinent for Berylda, a woman with quite literally, the world on her shoulders. Her self depreciation and unshakeable bond with her sister, along with her yearning for pure love, made Berylda Jones a worthy heroine, deserving of only the happiest of endings. Ben was of course a darling right from the start, so his ending was particularly satisfying all round. I loved this book and was hard pressed to put it down.
Paper Daisies was the second book I read for my 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I’ve been sitting on this review so I could publish it with its gorgeous new cover.
Kim is celebrating 10 years since the publication of her first novel, Black Diamonds. Beautifully repackaged, Black Diamonds was relaunched on 1 July 2017, along with all her earlier novels, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile, and Paper Daisies.
Black Diamonds, This Red Earth, The Blue Mile and Paper Daisies available in ebook rrp$7.99, and paperback $27.99.
To buy ebooks from your favourite retailers, follow the links from here: Kim Kelly – Pronoun