‘The Sun Walks Down’ by Fiona McFarlane
Absolutely love this book! Although I am not a clever reader of literary fiction, Fiona McFarlane got me hooked. It is sometimes a demanding read but so alive and full of richly portrayed characters.
Of course, the South Australian landscape is the main protagonist, tortured and decimated as it is, ruined by European settlers who did not see beauty or learn bush secrets nor had the ability to properly sustain the land; they just saw desert to be conquered. And they did it badly.
September 1883, in the South Australian outback, young Denny is lost in a dust storm but author McFarlane’s tale spins off into other areas as well; the climate, people showing strength and fear, love, intimacy, unthinking cruelty, making good and bad decisions, and those who trek back and forth across the bone-dry landscape on enduring camels. Colonial Australia was raw and rough; every human emotion is detailed here, channelled into finding a lost boy, coercing the reader into moods of discomfort, dreamlike imaginings, and showing the struggles needed to sustain a viable future.
Although I dislike the non-indigenous trees on the bookcover, I could write copious notes on each character in this story. McFarlane brings to mind earlier Australian authors, superlative Patrick White and inimitable Thea Astley. Here, McFarlane’s character of Mrs Joanna Axam reminds me of my great-aunt, a strong and opinionated woman with natural cunning subdued for polite society and an unerring ability to read people’s personalities, often using it against them.GBW 2023
Joanna Axam has a whippet named Bolingbroke which shows her sense of humour. Henry, her deceased husband, left behind a biblical garden, not because he was devout but because he liked the idea. Joanna knows it’s thirsty, a waste of water, but cannot let it die even though their land is barren due to cattle over-farming. I found her chapters quite riveting and she is obsessed with the possum cloak worn by Jimmy, one of Sergeant Foster’s trackers. What a schemer! Did she want it taken from the rightful owner to cover her own disfigurement? Did she understand mob and Country significance of a possum cloak?
Although young frightened Denny is the catalyst, over seven long days, there are many people good, bad and indifferent, trying to find the youngster by using their own particular skills. Two people spring to mind, Karl and Bess, penniless itinerant artists wandering in the desert in search of creative inspiration. They are woven through Denny’s story for better or worse, you decide.GBW 2023
I read this book when I was feeling strong otherwise I may have been overwhelmed by emotion at what Fiona McFarlane has created. As indicated by my first name, I am a descendant of German settlers to South Australia where the story is set. My great-great grandfather was a Lutheran pastor who documented the sad decline of Indigenous populations, caring for them as best he could. His records are in University archives and that’s all I know.
Just like life ‘The Sun Walks Down’ has turmoil then a resolution of sorts.
Set aside a chunk of quiet time to read it.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
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