This is an accomplished historical novel about two very different sisters whose 1890s voyage from London into the remote outback of Australia becomes a journey of self-discovery, set against a landscape of wild beauty and courage.
London 1981 – Harriet Cameron is a talented young artist whose mother died when she was barely five. She and her beloved sister Sarah were brought up by their father the radical thinker and philosopher James Cameron.
After adventurer Henry Vincent arrives on the scene, the sisters lives are changed forever as Sarah, the beauty of the family marries him and embarks on a journey to Australia. Harriet, intensely missing her sister must decide whether to continue helping her father with his work or devote herself to painting.
When James Cameron suddenly dies Harriet is overwhelmed with grief. Seeking distraction she too sets out for Australia. By now Sarah and Henry are living on a farm settlement in the Northern Territory and Harriet’s unfortunate meeting with the rough Dan Brady on the voyage will later lead to violence and the truth about the cruelty of some white settlers towards the local indigenous Aborigines being brought to all.
The author explores her own past ancestors who moved from England and Scotland to these wild but beautiful areas of remote Northern Territories in Australia.
The plot takes a little while to get going but there is interest gathering from both the family and political themes covering the prejudice against the Aborigines and the rights of women. I was interested to hear about the Australian version of suffragists (the Women’s Franchise League) and how women with education and views were often also rejected by their own white peers once they had travelled all that way.
The author describes the wide often harsh and hot landscapes well. There is timely discussion about the Aborigines lighting the fires to manage and ‘cleaning country’ to prevent further disastrous fires spreading to farmland (still a huge concern in Australia as we have seen this year).
Interesting and well written personal read. I think Booth’s other work is more contemporary but I did enjoy this novel a lot and learnt and could imagine a lot about the turn of the 19th into the 20th century for women who had crossed half the world to seek the truth about themselves. The romance maybe a little weak element although the character Mick had potential and maybe could lead to a further story?
I am sure book clubs will enjoy this particularly with those who have family in Australia or who have visited in the past.
Philipa Coughlan 4/4*
The Philosopher’s Daughters by Alison Booth
978-1-9130-6214-9 Red Door Press Paperback April 2020