LUCY TRELOAR Salt Creek. Reviewed by Michelle McLaren
In the Author’s Note at the end of this debut novel Lucy Treloar reveals that although the events that inspired the book are loosely based in the history of her own family, ‘[t]here was no Salt Creek Station’.
The effect of this short sentence is strange – like being shaken from a dream – because for 400 pages, Salt Creek Station has felt very real. Like Treloar’s characters, we too have inhabited the dark, dusty tumbledown house made from driftwood and pieces of old, smashed-apart boats; it looms over the whole novel, present even in its absence.
Salt Creek opens in Chichester, England, in 1874, as Hester Finch reflects on her teenage years in Salt Creek, a remote station on the coast of South Australia’s Coorong region. It’s a life Hester escaped years ago. She is wealthy now, a respected member of the community, but lost in nostalgia, she muses that she ‘has never felt so alive as then, when we had so little’.
In the next chapter, it’s almost as if we’ve somehow tumbled into Hester’s thoughts. It’s 1855, and 15-year-old Hester and her large family are arriving at their new home at Salt Creek for the first time. Though Hester’s younger brothers, Fred and Albert, and sister Addie are unable to contain their excitement, Hester knows better. The Finches have been forced to sell their comfortable home in Adelaide after Hester’s father’s poor business decisions left the family deep in debt. The family’s brocade chaise and piano now sit, vaguely ridiculous and covered in dust, in the shack Hester’s father has built from driftwood.
The moment Hester enters her new home, she realises her childhood is over. With her mother incapacitated by grief following the deaths of two of her youngest children, combined with the loss of her family home, Hester will have to run the household.
As the weeks and months pass in Salt Creek, Hester finds she enjoys teaching her younger siblings. Her brother Fred begins to study the local flora and fauna, while Addie remains pampered and unfocused. Hester’s two older brothers, Stanton and Hugh, spend the days working on the station with their father, becoming haughty and aloof.
Life on the Coorong is tough for the Finches, who consider the land inhospitable and lonely. They’re wrong on both counts. The Ngarrindjeri people, whose land the Finches have claimed as their own, are all around, and have been living on the land for thousands of years. Suspicious of each other’s presence, the Finches and the Ngarrindjeri keep their distance – with the exception of Tully, a half-Ngarrindjeri boy Hester’s father meets while establishing the fences of the land he considers his property. He invites the boy into his home; gives him clothes and teaches him about culture, language and religion. Tully, however, has his own ideas:
Papa invited Tull to stay to dinner. Tull watched the table being set and the other preparations of serving dishes being taken to the kitchen and Addie outside collecting a bouquet of whatever flowers she could find to make the dresser nice for Sunday. Without saying a word, Tull went past the table and out of the back door and flowed up the slope and away. He did not come to the house the next day and he didn’t seek out Papa and the boys on the run. He was gone again, we had no idea where, and in the week that followed Papa would not stop blaming himself that he had progressed too fast with him.
Eventually, most of the Finches come to regard Tully as a part of the family. It’s through him that Hester begins to understand the damage her family’s presence is doing to the Ngarrindjeri people and the land they inhabit. As tensions between the Finches and the Ngarrindjeri rise, divisions form within the Finch family, and Hester, as well as each of her brothers and sisters, must decide where they stand.
Written in wonderfully fluid prose that effectively mimics the writing of the era in which it’s set, Lucy Treloar’s Salt Creek was released in 2015, and is just beginning to receive the accolades it deserves. Here in Australia, Treloar recently won the Indie Award for Debut Fiction, and has just been longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Award, while overseas the novel has been shortlisted for the 2016 Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction.
Inspired by the family stories told by Treloar’s mother and grandmother over the course of many car journeys, Salt Creek’s greatest triumph is the way it brings the harsh beauty of the Coorong to life on the page. Treloar writes about the region with a sense of awe that shines through in Hester’s voice, telling her story from another time and place:
It was before the worst of the autumn rain started. When I travel the Coorong in my mind, as I do often, it is like that day at the turning to cooler weather … The sky and the lagoon were sapphire, and the peninsula was that strip of white and green and the sucks were pink rimmed and the last birds that left for winter were wheeling the sky and dipping to earth and sea to gather up more of their number before rising again, higher – clouds of them separating and cohering like shoals of fish. The noise of it. I wish I could remember it exactly; I dream of it sometimes.
Hester’s often wistful narrative voice binds this novel together. Like Sybylla Melvyn in Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career (though with none of Sybylla’s teen angst) Hester resents the responsibilities placed on her, quietly lamenting the loss of her childhood. Intelligent and determined to see more of the world than Salt Creek, she is torn between her longing for escape and the needs of her family. As the novel progresses, the way in which Hester sees her family, her father in particular, slowly changes. Treloar’s restraint here is exceptional, as she takes her time to let each of her characters slowly unfurl.
Salt Creek is a grand novel, but it never feels grandiose. Treloar’s subtle, assured tone draws the reader into the book’s all-consuming world, revealing its mysteries with a tantalising slowness that’s completely engaging.
Thematically, the novel treads similar ground to Kate Grenville’s 2005 classic, The Secret River, which was inspired by Grenville’s own family history. In a recent article in the Guardian by Monica Tan, Indigenous writer Bruce Pascoe gently criticises not only Grenville’s novel, but the way in which novels by non-Aboriginal authors approach Aboriginal characters as themes rather than people, arguing for a natural literature that’s ‘true to the land’. ‘We have to learn to reflect the country not white colony,’ Pascoe says.
In her Acknowledgements, Treloar calls Salt Creek ‘a lament for a lost world, and an expression of shame at the part my forebears had to play in its ruin’. Ignoring the jarring passivity of the word ‘lost’, this novel is written with a deep reverence for its setting, as well as respect for the people it portrays. In the wake of Pascoe’s comments, what does this novel change or challenge? Is Treloar’s writing true to the land, and are her Ngarrindjeri characters written accurately and fairly?
Salt Creek raises questions about the ways in which non-Aboriginal writers approach writing about Aboriginal people and issues, and they’re not questions this reviewer is qualified to even begin to answer.
Lucy Treloar Salt Creek Picador 2015 PB 416pp $29.99
Michelle McLaren is a Melbourne-based critic and freelance copywriter who writes about 20th-century literature at Book to the Future.
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