The Pearler’s Wife…
About the Book:
From the high seas to the deep seabed, from the latticed verandahs of Buccaneer Bay to the gambling dens in Asia Place, The Pearler’s Wife is a stunning debut, inspired by a small yet pivotal moment in Australian history.
A distant land. A dangerous husband. A forbidden love.
It is 1912, and Maisie Porter stands on the deck of the SSOceanic as England fades from view. Her destination is Buccaneer Bay in Australia’s far north-west. Her purpose: marriage to her cousin Maitland, a wealthy pearling magnate – and a man she has never met.
Also on board is William Cooper, the Royal Navy’s top man. Following a directive from the Australian government, he and eleven other ‘white’ divers have been hired to replace the predominantly Asian pearling crews. However, Maitland and his fellow merchants have no intention of employing the costly Englishmen for long . . .
Maisie arrives in her new country to a surprisingly cool reception. Already confused by her hastily arranged marriage, she is shocked at Maitland’s callous behaviour towards her – while finding herself increasingly drawn to the intriguing Cooper.
But Maisie’s new husband is harbouring secrets – deadly secrets. And when Cooper and the divers sail out to harvest the pearl shell, they are in great danger – and not just from the unpredictable and perilous ocean . . .
I’ve read quite a few novels of late that have widened the retelling of Australia’s history to incorporate indigenous and immigrant experiences, and instead of glossing over our white Australia past, they’ve shone a spotlight onto it, warts and all. Fiction plays an important part in telling the stories of the past and I am thrilled to be reading more and more of these tales of truth.
The Pearler’s Wife surprised me with its depth and scope. I thought this was going to be a story about an English girl coming to Australia to marry an unpleasant man and we would follow her journey of adjustment and there would be some mystery and then it would all finish up with a big happily ever after bow. I underestimated this novel and have subsequently enjoyed it immensely.
Now, there is an English girl and she does arrive in Australia with the sole purpose of marrying a man she’s never met (who far surpasses unpleasant), and there is some adjusting, however, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This novel hosts an incredibly varied and authentic cast, and the vivid re-creation of the setting, particularly the oppressive humidity and heat, was sublime. It’s a story that doesn’t hold back, especially with the entrenched racism and deplorable treatment of non-whites. Based on historical fact, we are plunged, along with Maisie – our English girl – into a world of ruthless money making, corruption, class consciousness, racist national policy, and unchecked violence. It’s the wild west, but in Australia, and in the 20th century, and it’s a remarkable depiction of the north WA coast during the period when pearling and the White Australia policy intersected.
Up until the point she immigrates, Maisie had lived a sheltered existence where all of her needs had been taken care of by staff. Pampered, but not spoilt, she was a young woman who was well practised at being ignored, preferable to her mother’s constant disdain. I believe this countered her luxurious existence, tempering her nature to a more empathic response. Prior to arriving in Australia, Maisie had never encountered such explicit racism and her natural inclination was to reject it. She hires an aboriginal housekeeper when no other residents allow aborigines into their homes (inside positions normally given to Asians, while outside work is left to aborigines, although they were never paid for their contributions). Maisie makes a decision early on to not perpetuate community racism within her own home, a big challenge considering her husband is an incredibly despicable man with no regard for anyone other than himself. Marjorie, Maisie’s housekeeper, is such a card, a truly excellent character. The two women, along with Duc, the Chinese cook, form a unit, the three of them banding together against the master of the house. There’s some really excellent dialogue exchanged throughout the novel between these three and the loyalty runs deep as time goes by.
The story revolves around this experiment by the government, where 12 British divers were brought over to the north WA coast to replace the use of Japanese divers, who had over time proved themselves the most hardy at diving without diver’s sickness. The problem was, these British divers had to be paid a lot more, cutting into the profits of the pearling magnates. A plot unfolds whereby the magnates band together to sabotage the British diving experiment as a means of continuing with the use of the more experienced and hardy Japanese divers. Underpinning this British diving experiment was the White Australia Policy. The sociologist within me threw its arms around the modern history enthusiast and we all settled in for an incredible read. Roxane Dhand has pulled all of these threads together in order to bring this pivotal moment within Australian history into the spotlight. Consultation of the author notes in the back of the book confirm just how much of this story contains fact. It was very well done, complex social and political issues entwined with a domestic plot; my engagement with this novel never wavered.
Alongside this, Maisie is attempting to unravel the mystery of her husband. Why he married her when he has no interest in having a wife; the hold he has over her parents; the secret business dealings he is at helm of; and his curious relationship with the town mayor. Maisie digs deep into her own character and begins to emerge as a young woman worth reckoning with, far more so than her husband ever anticipated.
One of the English divers brought over for the experiment is a young man named Cooper. He falls in love with Maisie very early on and she is drawn to him also from the moment that she meets him. When it comes to historical fiction, I’m not a fan of romance, but I do love what I like to call, ‘restrained passion’, where two people are prevented from being together because of circumstances out of their control, and yet their love becomes consuming and impossible to turn away from. It’s not easy to pull off, Jane Eyre is the best example of this, but a more recent one that comes to mind would be The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth. Roxane Dhand pulls this off beautifully with Maisie and Cooper and I really did love this aspect of the story.
I’m fascinated that a British author chose to write this Australian story as her debut novel. Roxane talks of visiting Broome and being intrigued by the history on display there. I’m truly glad that this caught her eye because this resulting novel is an exceptionally good retelling of a little known history of a far flung corner of our vast continent. This is a novel with wide appeal and is a guaranteed good read. As long as you have an interest in Australian history, you can’t go wrong with The Pearler’s Wife.
Thanks is extended to Penguin Random House Australia for providing me with a copy of The Pearler’s Wife for review.
About the Author:
Roxane Dhand was born in Kent and entertained her sisters with imaginative stories from a young age. She studied English and French at London University, and in 1978 she moved to Switzerland, where she began her professional career in public relations. Back in England and many years later on, she taught French in both the maintained and private sectors. Now retired, she is finally able to indulge her passion for storytelling. The Pearler’s Wife is her first novel.