This debut novel is set in the fictional town of Bucaneer Bay which Roxanne Dhand has based on historical research of Broome in the years just before WWI. The real town has been described as somewhat like the Wild West with captains of pearling vessels virtually a law unto themselves. In Dhand’s tale the ex-pat British and native Australians try to be maintain what they think of as British standards but young Maisie Porter quickly sees through the facade.
As a young woman from a good family, Maisie has travelled across the world to marry a distant cousin, Maitland, of whom she knows nothing. She is chaperoned on the voyage by a friend of her mother’s Mrs Wallace who provides much needed advice and information on what married life will probably be like for Maisie. But things don’t turn out at all as she was expecting. Maitland turns out to be a drunkard and is not at all interested in his new wife, even to the extent of not defending her against the advances of another drunken captain.
Most of the work of diving for mother of pearl shell, and of course pearls, was done by Japanese and Malay divers. The Australian government wanted to use the White Australia policy to get rid of the Asian divers and replace them with British divers. In the book, there are a number of British ex-navy divers on the same ship, sent out to fulfil this government mandate. Maisie catches the eye of one of these men, William Cooper, who will be working for her husband.
The Pearlers don’t want to use the British divers as they are seen to be too expensive, their safety regime would result in less diving time and so lower profits. Maisie is appalled by the colour/race divides that are so scrupulously observed by the white population. Aboriginal Australians are treated little better than animals and Maitland beats one almost to death. Maisie decides for herself when she employs Majorie as a maid and she turns out to be intelligent, capable and loyal.
Secrets and lies are at the heart of this tale: why is Maisie sent to marry Maitland and why doesn’t he want to sleep with his wife? Then there are the schemes and lies the pearling captains use to try and get rid of the British divers. On a different level, there are the lies that Maisie tells herself about her feelings towards Cooper, and vice versa.
Although the author has produced a well-researched first novel, I found the mountain of lies, deceits and schemes just a little hard to swallow. I have no problems suspending disbelief but the improbability factor was just a little too high for my taste.
Reviewed by Jan Kershaw
Rating out of 10: 6
Distributed by: Penguin Australia
Released: February 2018
RRP: $32.99 trade paperback, $26.99 audiobook, $12.99 eBook