Bess and Kathleen
Dominique Wilson’s new novel
Reviewed by Susan Sheridan
April 2022, no. 441

. . . Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables [1862] is an important linking device in this episodic novel. Both Bess and Kathleen read and reread Hugo’s story; they recall its heroines, Fantine and her daughter Cosette, as they try in vain to hide the stigma of illegitimacy and are flung into the depth of poverty or lose their fragile social respectability.

What kind of historical novel is Orphan Rock? It is not in the nineteeth-century tradition of epics that encompassed a whole society in crisis, like Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Nor is it the kind of popular romantic saga so familiar to Australian readers, like Ernestine Hill’s My Love Must Wait, nor a critical historical novel of the kind that sets out to challenge national myths, like Thea Astley’s A Kindness Cup.

Rather, Wilson’s sense of history seems to be shaped by a commitment to ‘history from below’, a history of everyday life as it affected oppressed people: the destitute, the orphaned, the women seduced and abandoned, the ethnic and sexual minority cut out of the social contract. The ‘orphan’ in the novel’s title evokes this sense of being cut loose from the social fabric, a feeling that Wilson’s characters experience again and again. They are the dispossessed, les misérables. Read full review here.

 

Orphan Rock
Reviewed by Cheryl Akle
19 March 2022

Orphan Rock takes the reader from the back streets of Sydney’s slums to the wide avenues of Paris. Beginning in an orphanage in the late 1800s, young Bessie is reunited with her family, yet as she learns more about her family’s history, she discovers that not everything is as it seems. It’s a fascinating read, giving insight into many historic Sydney locales, featuring recognisable historical figures, such as Tilly Devine and her inner-Sydney razor gangs. Author Dominique Wilson previously wrote The Yellow Papers and That Devil’s Madness, and with this latest novel, she firmly establishes her ability to craft historical fiction. The Australian

 

Orphan Rock
Reviewed by Helen Eddy
17 March 2022

Orphan Rock is a single pillar of rock standing alone in the Blue Mountains, beautiful but largely inaccessible. For Bessie’s husband, Bertram, it represents a potential home and future prosperity. But perhaps it is more symbolic of the solitary un-won heart of the woman who stands beside him. We first discover Bessie as a child in the cold and harsh environment of the Protestant Orphan School, clinging to her older friend Lottie, and with no memory of her parents. The inscription on the opening pages of the novel reads
                ‘The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again . . .
                And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can’t feel a thing.’

The theme of the orphan, or at least the child lost to its parents, recurs again and again in this story set initially in the 1800’s, and focusses particularly on the difficult lot of women whose only hope of financial security is to make an advantageous marriage. To have a child out of wedlock is a thing of great shame, and to be concealed from society at all cost.

Wilson has thoroughly researched the ideas and attitudes of the era she presents, and we discover the patriarchal society and the subjugation of women, the racism and hatred towards Chinese immigrants, the demonisation of the mentally ill, and the abhorrence of same sex relationships. Read More

  ReadPlus

 

 

Orphan Rock
Reviewed by Joanne P. @ Booklover Book Reviews
11 March 2022

I have had the great pleasure of reading all of Dominique Wilson’s novels to date. Of her moving debut offering The Yellow Papers, I said “there is an observant eye and clear talent with language just waiting to shine bright”. Then she delivered on that in her powerfully compelling second novel That Devil’s Madness. So I dove into Orphan Rock already knowing it would dig deeper than many titles in the historical fiction genre.

I always come away from Wilson’s novels feeling I have learned something; with greater breadth and depth of knowledge of the society and time-period in focus. Her passion for research, eye for historical detail and skill at translating and depicting the impact of historical events on the lives of everyday people shines bright in Orphan Rock. Noteworthy also is Wilson’s elevation of society’s diversity and authenticity of her characterisation. Good-hearted characters make bad judgements, just as stereotypically dislikeable characters on occasion do commendable things.

Orphan Rock is an epic not just in size (almost 500 pages) but also geography and chronology, but the reader’s journey is propelled by its pulsating humanity. This story honours female trailblazers in all walks of life and also the men that loved and respected them. Despite the confronting inequities, immense heartbreak and sacrifice strikingly depicted, I found the echoing legacies of lives well-lived uplifting.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5 [Booklover Book Reviews]

 

Orphan Rock by Dominique Wilson
by 1 Girl… 2 Many Books
2 March 2022

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}: Orphan Rock is a complex and richly detailed story of secrets and heartbreak that will take you from the back streets of Sydney’s slums to the wide avenues of the City of Lights. 

The late 1800s was a time when women were meant to know their place. But when Bessie starts to work for Louisa Lawson at The Dawn, she comes to realise there’s more to a woman’s place than servitude to a husband. 

Years later her daughter Kathleen flees to Paris to escape a secret she cannot accept. But World War One intervenes, exposing her to both the best and the worst of humanity. 

Masterful and epic, this book is both a splendid evocation of early Sydney, and a truly powerful story about how women and minorities fought against being silenced.

I really, really enjoyed this.

It’s a clever, detailed story spanning a large number of years, beginning with Bessie as just a child in an orphanage. When a man comes to claim her, to say he’s taking her back to her mother (he’s married to her mother but is not her father), Bessie dreams of a better life. And although the man is kind and Bessie now has things that she could never imagined, such as a governess and clothes, her relationship with her mother does not go as planned. Her mother shows little interest in her and behaves in a manner that Bessie finds odd. And when her mother feels threatened, she drives a wedge between Bessie and her stepfather and Bessie is forced out of the home and to fend on her own.

There’s a lot of suffering in this novel and I feel like it showcases so well the discrepancy between those who are wealthy and those who are not. Bessie has few options available to her when forced to leave the house but is fortunate to get a position as a companion to an older lady. When that lady dies, she again is left somewhat powerless, accepting an offer of marriage from a man she does not love but hopes to make a life with. It’s not a happy marriage – her husband is a man with delusions of grandeur without the ability to pull his grand schemes off and Bessie comes to know grief, pain and suffering on huge, huge levels over the next few years.

The author paints a wonderful (not rosy, but vivid and real) picture of Sydney during this time, including a typhoid outbreak that led to people being quarantined and also the terrible racism and prejudice against both native Australians, the indigenous population and also the Chinese immigrants who arrived during the goldrush and eventually moved into other lifestyles. Read More

[1 Girl… 2 Many Books]

 

Orphan Rock
Reviewed by Ashleigh Meikle
1 March 2022

Synopsis: Orphan Rock is a complex and richly detailed story of secrets and heartbreak that will take you from the back streets of Sydney’s slums to the wide avenues of the City of Lights. 

The late 1800s was a time when women were meant to know their place. But when Bessie starts to work for Louisa Lawson at The Dawn, she comes to realise there’s more to a woman’s place than servitude to a husband. 

Years later her daughter Kathleen flees to Paris to escape a secret she cannot accept. But World War One intervenes, exposing her to both the best and the worst of humanity. 

Masterful and epic, this book is both a splendid evocation of early Sydney, and a truly powerful story about how women and minorities fought against being silenced. 

~*~

Bessie’s life in an orphanage is about to change. The arrival of a man claiming to know her mother. He takes her away, and for the first time, Bessie has a family – except her mother, Mercy, isn’t quite what Bessie expected, and several years later, Bessie heads off to make her own life, getting married, having a child, and spending years in destitution before finding work with suffragist Louisa Lawson, and embarking on a new life, which brings her a daughter, Kathleen. Years later, Kathleen’s life is thrown into turmoil, and she runs away to Paris as the world descends into World War One and returns home during the war with a secret, to tragic news. Part one explores Bessie’s life from orphan to mother, and part two explores Kathleen’s life, and brings some of the themes in the earlier part full circle, and shows how women’s lives evolved and changed from the late 1800s and the days of the colonies, right into the first half of the 20th century, and what many women of the time experienced.Read More

[The Book Muse]

 

Orphan Rock
Reviewed by Grasshopper2
1 March 2022

Australian History comes to life in this rich and complex saga, Orphan Rock. Set in Sydney in the late 1800’s we are introduced to the main character Bessie, as she gradually becomes aware that she has been left at an Orphanage.

As a young girl, she can vaguely remember her mother, but Lottie is the orphan who guides her through the routines, keeps her safe, and sleeps with her at night. The poverty and hardship are tangible.

Many topics are examined in this story and as a result of careful research, the Dominique Wilson brings forward many other social justice issues. Read More

[Blue Wolf Reviews]

 

A Sweeping Historical
Better Reading
28 February 2022

Orphan Rock is a complex and richly detailed story of secrets and heartbreak that takes you from the back streets of Sydney’s slums to the wide avenues of Paris, the City of Lights.

The late 1800s was a time when women were meant to know their place. But when Bessie starts to work for Louisa Lawson at The Dawn, she comes to realise there’s more to a woman’s place than servitude to a husband. Years later her daughter Kathleen flees to Paris to escape a secret she cannot accept. But World War One intervenes, exposing her to both the best and the worst of humanity.

Masterful and epic, this book is both a splendid evocation of early Sydney, and a truly powerful story about how women and minorities fought against being silenced.

Dominique Wilson firmly establishes her talent for writing sweeping historical fiction with Orphan Rock. It follows her first two novels, The Yellow Papers and That Devil’s Madness, set in late 1800s China and North Africa respectively. Read More

[Better Reading]

 

Orphan Rock (Dominique Wilson, Transit Lounge)
Deborah Crabtree
25 January 2022  

Five-year-old Bessie is removed from an extended stay at the Protestant Orphan School and returned home to her unstable mother: a woman she doesn’t remember and who is anything but loving towards her. The trajectory of Bessie’s life, with all its struggles, loves, losses, deaths, marriages and disappointments, plays out in Orphan Rock. Against the backdrop of Sydney in the late 1800s and into the 1900s, Bessie is pitted against war, extreme poverty and outbreaks of smallpox and the Spanish flu, among other events.

This well-paced, multi-generational novel progresses through to the life of Bessie’s daughter Kathleen, with a particularly vivid sojourn in Paris at the outbreak of World War I. The scope of the novel is vast and occasionally skims surfaces because of this, but Dominique Wilson is a skilful storyteller. Her characters are compelling and her meticulous research and attention to detail bring the past alive. The inclusion of well-chosen cameos from real historical figures—such as Tilly Devine, for instance—adds a colourful authenticity.

Orphan Rock also touches upon the Australian identity throughout history, while exploring our endemic racism and sexism, and highlighting the roles of women. It will appeal to lovers of historical fiction and will sit comfortably on the shelf next to the likes of Meg Keneally and Geraldine Brooks. [Books+Publishing: Reviews]

#HistoricalFiction #AussieLit #Australianfiction #histfic #colonial #literaryfiction #WWI #Paris #Sydney #ReadMoreAussieBooks #review

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