REVIEW: I asked Twitter recently whether I can claim to have read a book if I have listened to the audio book. Writer Charlotte Wood and journalist Anton Enus both replied with an emphatic, No!
I defer to their judgement and declare that in preparation for The Sydney Writer’s Festival I listened to Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar in the car as I drove to and from work. An hour in the morning and an hour in the evening. In this way my experience of the novel was stretched out over weeks, whereas, had I picked up the paperback I would have finished it in a matter of days.
That drawn-out experience of Salt Creek allowed me to enter further than I might have into the world of narrator Hester Finch, who, as a girl of fifteen in 1855, must live with her family in near complete isolation in the Coorong, South Australia. By loitering so long with her, I felt in some small way that I was shouldering some of her great burdens.
Salt Creek, though told in a fairly straightforward manner, is a well-crafted novel tackling very complex issues – isolation, ownership of land, destruction of indigenous culture, identity in the face of change from youth to adulthood, from wealth to poverty, from moral ascendency to abasement, plus murder, sex, religion, and much more. It is for very good reasons that author Lucy Treloar has found herself on the Miles Franklin Shortlist this year (it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she was to win the prize).
Granted, at times, narrator Hester Finch is infuriating. Some of her conclusions are abhorrent to modern thinking. But this just reinforces our trust in her narrative. When she explores the motivations of her siblings or parents, or fails to understand the motives of the family’s adopted son – the Aboriginal boy, Tull – we believe her and that belief allows us to take a seat at the family table with few reservations.
At times Salt Creek is heart-breaking but never quite hopeless. And though it is a literary novel, it has – like the best of the great nineteenth century novels – popular elements: high drama, suspense, romance and even some laughs.
In Salt Creek, Lucy Treloar has given readers the best of both worlds – an intelligent, thoughtful work, which is thoroughly engrossing. Highly recommended.