I’m fairly sure I should be ashamed of the fact that I only heard of Bruny Island recently so had some vague idea where it was. I’d been contemplating attending a writing festival in Tasmania in Huon Valley and discovered that (nearby) Bruny Island is a popular tourist destination.
So… I’d thankfully I had some idea of the context of the setting of this excellent new novel by Australian author Heather Rose which takes place in the not-too-distant future.
by Heather Rose
Published by Allen & Unwin
on October 1st 2019
Source: Allen & Unwin
Genres: Thriller / Suspense, General Fiction
When a bomb goes off in remote Tasmania, Astrid Coleman agrees to return home to help her brother before an upcoming election.
But this is no simple task. Her brother and sister are on either side of politics, the community is full of conspiracy theories, and her father is quoting Shakespeare. Only on Bruny does the world seem sane.
Until Astrid discovers how far the government is willing to go.
I’ve not read any of Rose’s books before but this is her fifth adult novel and she’s co-authored a number of young adult novels.
I tend to avoid books about terrorism, espionage, war and the like. And as this book kicks off it could be about any – or all – of those things. Indeed our lead character Astrid (Ace) is in the Middle East working as a UN negotiator so in the throes of negotiating the release of women held as sex slaves in return for prisoners. The backcover blurb mentions that setting, but we’re only there briefly, for our introduction to Astrid and to get an idea of ‘who’ she is and how she plays the game.
She’s also the sister of Tasmanian Premier John Coleman (JC). (And in an interesting twist) of opposition leader Maxine (Max). And I won’t make the usual naff incestuous Tasmanian jokes, but rather note that Rose (through Astrid) comments on the smallness and insulation of the Australian state.
We’re offered an excellent sense of place from Rose, including Bruny Island and the neighbouring mainland.
Understandably the small community of Bruny Island – the few hundred island dwellers themselves (many of whom sea-changers and tree-changers) are all against the bridge and inflow of tourists. It isn’t just that though – the age-old dilemma of progress or development – it’s the change to the fabric of the island, dependent on ferries and the associated ‘river’ or island culture for all of these years. Though she’s lived in America for all of her adult life, it’s something Astrid understands.
Tasmanians are island people. Bruny Islanders even more so….
We are water people. If this bridge was being built to join Tasmania to mainland Australia, Tasmania would, I imagined, be absorbed into mainland Australian culture within a decade or two. I was sure Tasmanians would resist that with everything they had, despite the economic advantages. Because to live on an island isn’t just a location. It’s a sense of belonging. It’s history and sacrifice. It’s choice to be remote. It’s kind of a metaphor….
An island is both a stronghold and bolthole. p 66
I hated that I felt like Astrid was an unlikely protagonist, as it made me realise how few books I read in which the central character is a 56yr old woman. And though family is at the crux of this book (there’s a sense of weightiness of the generations who came before), it’s not about Astrid as a mother or wife.
Astrid’s a trouble-shooter. A negotiator (and a bit on the side) for the UN. Her family has been involved in politics for generations so it was only natural she and her siblings ventured into public territories where others may not have had the confidence to tread.
There’s a smidge of romance in the air for Astrid and Rose does a great job at balancing that with a sense of pragmatism and realism.
Rose introduces some obvious suspects for the bridge bombing but in the background there’s a raft of suspicion about the bridge itself. It seems overkill, the amount being spent on something to service so few people. And the bombing itself? It’s meant the relaxation of some labour laws as two hundred Chinese workers arrive to get the bridge back on track. The political message is that they’re not taking anyone’s job. They’re helping the local staff catch up to where they’d be if it wasn’t for the bombing.
Rose touches on racism and it’s deftly done. There’s reference to ‘yellow peril, but equally to the ease with which the government sells land to overseas buyers.
Ultimately though, given the presence of some Chinese investors and sudden interest by the US in China’s Australian investment it seems there’s more to the bridge than meets the eye.
I’m not usually/currently a fan of political intrigue (despite my 1990s love of Robert LeCarre, Len Deighton and Robert Ludlum) but was reminded of the TV show I watched recently Pine Gap, which has Australian intelligence forces (and leaders) pondering the reality of our allegiances – more specifically, China vs US – and our disposability to either or both… if it came to that.
This is very strongly political. The book is littered with references to the Middle East, motivations for meddling there, and repercussions. About China and Hong Kong and of course Astrid (our arbiter) reflects on Australian politics.
That’s why I hate Liberals. It’s all money and power. I hate Labor as well, because they’ll sell out on anything – workers, refugees, artists, freedoms – just to get power. p 205
Interestingly my eyes didn’t glaze over as we dipped into conspiracy theories and underhanded government dealings. Again I think Rose gets the balance right; though at times it felt as if Rose just wasn’t sure what direction this book should take (and I struggled to describe the ‘sort’ of book it is).
Of course I read this as impeachment investigations commenced in the US and the President – who seems to have pushed China away, drawn it closer, and pushed it away again – asks for their help in discrediting a former politician and his son.
Politics aside, the family relationships are interesting. Astrid and JC are twins, though she feels closer to her half-sibling Max. And though JC and Max are political rivals they manage to put that aside for regular family dinners with their extended family. So, there’s a strong theme of family loyalty, the weight of the generations who came before, expectations of loved ones, as well as a sense of boundaries finally being drawn.
I want to love my family. I do love my family. And, yes, I belong to them. If I didn’t love them, what sort of person would I be? p 192
This is well-paced… moving to an exciting crescendo but avoiding the usual ‘lives in danger’ climax. Rose’s writing is eloquent and passionate and I’m intrigued now about her previous work… if it’s similarly themed or quite different.
Bruny by Heather Rose was published in Australia by Allen & Unwin and is now available.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes.