Review: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek is one of the very best works of historical fiction I’ve read. All the harder, then, to believe that it’s Lucy Treloar’s debut novel. Since its initial release in Australia in 2015, it has gone on to be shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize for historical fiction and the Miles Franklin Award for Australian novels. We have Claire McAlpine of Word by Word to thank for helping this book find a publisher in the UK. I can particularly recommend it to fans of The Essex Serpent and English Passengers, and there are also resonances with Rebecca Winterer’s Australia-set The Singing Ship.

Hester Finch is looking back from the 1870s – when she is a widowed teacher settled in England – to the eight ill-fated years her family spent at Salt Creek, a small (fictional) outpost in South Australia, in the 1850s–60s. Her luckless father tried whaling in Adelaide before turning to cheese-making as his next far-fetched money-making venture. From Quaker stock, Papa believed the natives should be well treated and even all but adopted an aboriginal boy named Tully, getting him to bathe and wear clothes and educating him alongside his seven children. However, as Hester hints starting early on in the novel, having a white family monopolizing resources put an impossible strain on relations with the natives.

It seems an inevitable irony of reviewing – or maybe it’s just me? – that the books you love the most are the hardest to write about. However can I do this book justice? I wonder about lots of 5-star books. It’s easier to put together a review when you have some mixture of positive and negative things to say, but I have no faults to find with Salt Creek. It flawlessly evokes its time period and somewhat bleak setting. Hester’s narration is as lyrical as it is nostalgic and matter-of-fact, and I sympathized with her desperation not to be drawn into a Victorian housewife’s cycle of endless pregnancies. The characterization is spot on, especially for figures like Papa or Tully who could have easily been reduced to stereotypes.

Most of all, this is the piercing story of a clash of cultures and the secret prejudices that underpin our beliefs. You might think notions of dominion and looking after ‘poor natives’ are outdated, but just listen in to what particular groups have to say about the environment and intervention abroad and you’ll realize that this is as relevant as ever. Salt Creek comes with my highest recommendation.

Some favorite lines:

“Poor Papa. He pitted himself against the land, yet it was impervious to all his learning and effort and incantatory prayers. The land had its own drives and they ran against Papa’s, blunting all his purposes.”

“I would not have a baby or that would be my life. There would be another and another and nothing left of my self; my life being decided for me.”

“Memories are just the survivors of complete events and are not easy to interpret; in the recalling they can be used to create a story that is only partially true or not true at all.”

“It seemed as if every part of the lagoon had a name and a story and a meaning. The stories were all around us wherever we went. There was scarcely a place without one and it felt as if we were nothing but one more story inside this world and the stories were without number.”

“The longer I looked the more that impression of civilization seemed an illusion.”


With thanks to Gallic Books for the free copy for review.

My rating:

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18 thoughts on “Review: Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar

  1. I’m so glad this got published in the UK and through Gallic Books excellent imprint Aardvark Bureau, I felt as though I lived this book and it wasn’t at all comfortable often, and I kept wondering how it was that Lucy Treloar succeeded in putting me through that as a reader. I imagine that she too totally entered into the narrative in a empathetic way, which is how this effect has been created.

    It’s a great story, and I thought it particularly well done in demonstrating the sacrifices that women and children make in supporting their menfolk to undertake such life-changing endeavours. For the wife, she leaves behind everything familiar (and civilised!) and the younger children grow up with different values and experiences and relationships to the environment.

    Just brilliant. Highly Recommended.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I met up with Kim Forrester at an event in London last week and she said Salt Creek being published here is mostly your doing! So again, thank you.

      I agree, I could completely imagine myself into the characters’ lives, especially Hester’s.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well it started with Kim’s review, and I wanted to read it, but it was only available in Australia, so I mentioned to her on twitter it would be good to find someone in the UK to publish it, and thought of Gallic’s new imprint Aardvark as I’d already two excellent Australian and NZ author’ s novels from them, and so I alerted them to it, but really Kim did the work, I just made the link! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like something I’d love! It’s interesting how similar it sounds to a novel that might be set during the same time period but in New England rather than Australia.
    Cool story about how it came to be published in the UK. I see no one wants to take the credit for it. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m a little confused by the Gallic/Belgravia/Aardvark collective and what it all means. But when they got in touch they described themselves to me as an “indie publisher of an eclectic mix of literary (and historical) fiction from around the world”. Which means they’re of great interest to me!

      Like

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