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Book DetailsISBN: 9781913062149
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Book Review: The: Philosopher's Daughters by Alison Booth - Reviewed by CloggieA (17 Mar 2020)
5 stars “…the water was channelled into a series of rock pools. When she’d first seen this place, she’d thought it looked almost like the sequence of locks on the Grand Union Canal, but less even, less regulated. Some of the pools were short, some were long, some were curved, some almost rectangular. As the water flowed into these various receptacles, it altered its tempo, from adagio to allegro, and it varied its volume too, from pianissimo to fortissimo.”
The Philosopher’s Daughters is the fifth novel by critically-acclaimed best-selling Australian author, Alison Booth. It was 1892 when the Cameron sisters lost their father, James. The UCL Professor of Moral Philosophy, by then eighteen years a widower, had been an enlightened man who had raised his daughters as liberated women, giving them a broad education and ensuring for them independence, should they wish it.
Sarah Cameron, beautiful, musical and vivacious had, at eighteen, fallen instantly for the charms of Henry Vincent. Of independent means, he was much travelled in the colonies as a stock and station agent, and eager to show her the beauty of New South Wales on their honeymoon. “He began to tell her about it, his words pouring out, as if they’d been waiting for her question, waiting at the ready, perfectly formed and arrayed in coherent lines like the bars of music on the sheets in front of them.”
Within two years, rather to her surprise, they are managing a property, Dimbulah Downs station, in the Northern Territory of South Australia. If the conditions are primitive, it does not prevent Sarah from loving the harsh country and its people, although she finds some of the treatment meted out to the indigenous people deeply disturbing.
Harriet Cameron, older by some years, misses her sister: “Without her endless piano playing, the whistling and singing and, most of all, her laughter. Harriet felt almost as if one of her senses had been turned off and she was left not quite whole.” Between her attempts at sketching and painting, her work for the Women’s Franchise League and helping her father with his work (something she considers a privilege), she is too busy to think much about a future.
Marriage is of no interest, despite a proposal: “A vision came to her of her own future and it didn’t include Charles. She saw it as iridescent, patterned with light and shade, and punctuated with form and colour. Converting drabness to colour and light: that would be her mission.” When James dies, she buys a passage on a ship to Sydney, needing to again be close to her sister.
In Sydney, she paints: “The light here is harsher than I ever imagined. It cuts unrelentingly through the surplus dross to reveal the truth beneath. The structure, the shape, the meaning. Whether I can capture this on canvas remains to be seen. I can only try.” But soon enough, heads for Port Darwin where she, too, notes the way the Aborigines are treated and cannot help but call it out with letters to the press. Hattie learns that while men like her brother-in-law may accept and indeed even support her suffragism and independence, others feel threatened enough by it to act. And to Henry’s dismay “Harriet sometimes lets her principles override her manners”
Hattie is also fascinated by this vast, dry country, changed by it, perhaps healed by it, and she feels a connection to the Aboriginal stockman, Mick. They bond over capturing the beauty of the landscape, but does that bond become a liability for either of them?
Booth gives the reader an excellent piece of historical fiction, exploring social attitudes in the late nineteenth century to the indigenous first peoples, their rights and the injustices they to which they are subjected. She also draws some parallels between the suffrage of women and indigenous.
Booth easily conveys her settings and is skilful with descriptive prose, often using snippets that perfectly describing a moment or person: “A tall thin figure, he had a thick grey moustache whose ends drooped down to the jawline, giving him a mournful expression. The visible part of his face was a parched landscape, and his eyebrows small ledges that cast his eyes into shadow, making them appear deep set.” Evocative and thought-provoking, this is an outstanding read. This unbiased review is from a copy provided by NetGalley and RedDoor Press
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