Like the heroine of Rosalie Ham’s 2000 novel The Dressmaker, Estella Lawford is a ballsy society lady who tries her luck at a new life in outback Australia.
In a set of circumstances that could only be defined as ‘too bad to be true’, a pregnant Estella leaves her unfaithful, bankrupt husband in 1950s London to take a job as a vet in the remote South Australian outpost of Kangaroo Crossing.
In her dusty, sparsely populated new home town, Estella encounters a host of quirky characters who, like her, are all “running away from something.” With the exception of a local uncle, a couple of suitors and a friendly nurse, the inhabitants of Kangaroo Crossing immediately mistrust Estella. In their eyes she is “obscenely young, city-bred, and as uppity as a brown snake.” How could she possibly be suited to life in the outback?
Determined to win their respect, Estella sets out to prove to the town that she has what it takes to be a country vet. She refuses to repeat the sins of her mother, who, unbeknownst to Estella’s neighbours, once settled in Kangaroo Crossing herself, only to flee, babe in arms, when it all got too hard.
With the help of a wounded racehorse, Estella gradually wins over the locals, doing everything she can to keep her lineage and pregnancy a secret. Much intrigue and more than a little romance ensue.
Stars in the Southern Sky is historical fiction that performs well for its genre, seamlessly weaving information about Australian culture, Aboriginal traditions, outback geography and farming practices throughout its narrative, without detracting from the plot.
Haran’s characters are refreshingly relatable and nuanced, and her love story considerably less contrived and lurid than in much other historical fiction. Her writing richly reflects the mystery and exoticism of the Australian outback that tourists love, so it is no wonder that her books are so popular in Europe.
Building and maintaining suspense is a clear strength of Haran’s, however the resolution of her well-crafted love triangle is a little rushed towards the end, leaving limited time to enjoy the spoils. The early London scenes are also a little clunky and uncharacteristic of English society of the era: an adulterous couple share a passionate kiss in public, Estella makes a scene on a crowded street, an elderly aunt comforts her niece with hot cocoa instead of tea.
While the writing is a little laboured in places, overall Stars in the Southern Sky is an uplifting page-turner that doubles as a course in outback life. It is well worth a read.
Reviewed by Sarah Judd-Lam
Rating out of 10: 7
Distributed by: Bastei Lübbe AG and available through Amazon Australia
Released: August 2017
RRP: $5.70 eBook