Here's the second of my reviews in this month's Historical Novels Review.
Rifling Paradise, Jem Poster
Charles Redbourne, a minor middle-aged English landholder, is forced by a series of unsavory circumstances to flee to Australia in order to make his name as a naturalist. Living with his uncle’s business protégé Vane on his grand estate just outside Sydney, Redbourne meets Vane’s artistic and headstrong daughter Eleanor, and the boorish Bullen, his guide for his specimen-seeking journeys.
Just as Redbourne and Eleanor begin to understand each other’s strange creative impulses and dark secrets, he is encouraged by her father to depart for his pre-arranged expedition. Bullen and Redbourne venture into the Blue Mountains to seek more rare and valuable specimens for Redbourne’s collection, and Bullen’s sadistic pleasure. Their guide, the half-Aboriginal boy Billy, leads them far into the wilderness where both men are faced with the dark and wild places in their own hearts – with disastrous results.
Poster does an excellent job of conveying the codes of Victorian social mores and the ways each of the characters adapted – or not – to the very real restrictions. His descriptions, both of the strange new landscape and the people in it, are vivid and elegant.
This book is beautifully paced and the characters, for the most part, well realized, particularly Redbourne. His personal journey as he comes into contact with the beautiful, vast, unknowable wildness of Australia – and Eleanor – is believable, frustrating, and moving. Poster deftly weaves in themes of environmentalism, love, and the psychological effects of upbringing and family with interesting action and characters.
Thoughtful, vivid, and well-written, this is a very engaging read. Recommended.