Book Club / Salt Creek | Book Club

The TOAST Book Club is published on the last Friday of every month. The reviews are written by Betsy Tobin, author of five novels and joint founder of Ink@84 – an independent bookshop just up the road from our head office, situated in leafy Highbury. Though the book club exists in a purely digital sphere we hope that you will add your own opinions and thoughts below.*

In her own words, Hester Finch has ‘been fortunate in three things, none of which I deserved’: firstly, her parents believed daughters to be worthy of education, a rarity in nineteenth century Australia; second, she is the favourite of her wealthy grandmother, who becomes her benefactor; and third, her family, though poor, had sufficient money to ‘save us from the worst that poverty could inflict.’ It is the strength, assurance and tenor of Hester’s voice that elevates this superbly written and atmospheric debut novel above others, and earned its author, Lucy Treloar, a clutch of awards in her homeland.

Salt Creek is an epic tale about the clash of European settlers and indigenous people in colonial Australia, inspired in part by the author’s own forbears. It is also an intensely moving portrait of love fettered by social norms and ideals. In 1855, fifteen year-old Hester’s family makes the arduous journey from Adelaide to Salt Creek in the Coorong, a long, narrow salt lagoon which slices along the country’s southeast coast. It is a wild, desolate place of dry grasses, low shrubs, sand hills, ‘contorted trees and modest folds of land.’ Only a handful of Europeans dare to settle there; they rock along uneasily beside the aboriginal community, who regard incomers with suspicion.

For Hester’s family, the Coorong is a last resort: after a series of failed business ventures, Hester’s father has staked everything on a small farmholding there, determined to find prosperity and peace. He is both fiercely devout and seemingly emancipated, determined to bring ‘civilization and reverence for God to the poor wretches that live on this land.’ As proof of this, the family takes in a young aboriginal boy, Tully, raising and educating him alongside their own children.

But unlike Tully’s people, they prove unable to live in harmony with the environment. Their presence poisons the land, and over time the land takes its revenge. Danger abounds, as does misfortune, and the livestock fails to thrive. ‘Life is so much absence and emptiness and vivid stretches and disconnected fragments,’ Hester later recounts. But it is not the land that ultimately proves their undoing. The family’s woes are compounded by their father’s pride, intransigence and hypocrisy. Eventually the cracks between his words and deeds widen, and they fall victim to both his false virtues and unshakeable beliefs.

Still, many years later, Hester yearns for Salt Creek: for it’s peculiar quality of light, for the sights, sounds and scents of her youth. The narrative moves back and forth between Chichester in the present, where Hester eventually settles, and the Coorong of her childhood, but is largely focused on the latter. ‘Some things collapse slow, and cannot always be rebuilt,’ Hester says of her memories. ‘And even if a thing can be remade it will never be as it was.’

As a young woman, Hester is wise and principled beyond her years, and fiercely independent. Having watched her mother sacrifice everything to her husband’s dreams, Hester is determined not to bond herself to anyone or anything, even the young artist she falls in love with. She is a strikingly feminist heroine whose consciousness, though deftly rendered in period prose, feels decidedly modern – and Salt Creek is historical fiction at its best, ferrying us to distant shores that seem curiously relevant to our own.

*All who comment will be entered into a prize draw to win one of our new tote bags.

This season TOAST is running a book sharing campaign, in store and online. Join in the conversation here.

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15 Comments

  • Right, I’m certainly going to pick this up, probably from the library!

  • Sound really interesting I will have to see I can find it locally

  • Another tempting novel that I wouldn’t otherwise have been aware of. Thank you to the reviewer.

  • Sounds like a very compelling read. I’ll be out to purchase it tomorrow.

  • This book is now on my rather long reading list.
    I love armchair or sleepy time travelling and book that take me to other times and places.
    I recommend Rose Tremaine books she was my English tutor at Uni,
    And Patrick White as well for his evocative writing .

  • This came just at the right moment as I have been scratching my head what book to suggest for our next years list.
    Am going to order immediately.

  • Geraldine Harris

    Book sharing schemes like this one are making it harder and harder for authors to earn a living from their writing. Have you no respect for the time and labour and creativity that goes into producing a book? Authors deserve a fair reward for their work, just as people who design and make clothes do.

  • Through the eyes of an outsider, be it time, culture or place, is a perspective that always woos the mind and resonates. It has been bought; it will be savoured.

  • What fantastic write up, Will definitely read this, can’t wait..

  • I am greatly enjoying how, over the past 10 years or so, historical fiction has re-appeared back into acclaim as a mainstream genre and more widely appreciated. I have used it often with my students over the years as an entree into the potential thoughts/feelings/lives of people in the past. When well written it certainly can do that, and this novel sounds most appealing.

  • Your wonderful review makes me want to read this book. You teasingly give just enough information to build up interest in Hester’s story so that I want to find out about Hester’s world and her life.

  • Salt Creek sounds amazing, my sort of book, especially as I live in Chichester & my family are in in Australia, so know it well. Really enjoy your book reviews & follow up on them as soon as I read them. Not near to a store o share.

  • Bev Hodgkinson

    This sounds a wonderful read – I’ll be recommending it to my book buddies. Thank you x

  • Jackie Haddock

    I’ve never been a ‘good’ reader so have challenged myself to spend the next 12 months exploring books, I’m hoping to finally ‘get’ reading. Thanks for this review, it’s going on my list.

  • An enviable write up made up from intentional and insightful prose that drew me into the story and planted a seed to germinate the desire to read Salt Creek.