Monday, April 23, 2018

Lilly Sommers' The Dark Dream, an epic of the gold rush in 19th-century Australia

My house is full of older books I’d purchased at least a decade ago, but due to ongoing commitments, I rarely have time to read them. I was starting to feel guilty about this, though, so picked this one up after finishing my latest Booklist assignment.

Published by Arrow/Random House Australia in 1997, Lilly Sommers’ The Dark Dream is an epic historical adventure (of nearly 600 pages) set in the rough-and-tumble world of the Bendigo gold rush in 1852. It’s long out of print, although the style doesn’t feel dated at all, and the author is still actively writing historical novels; I have some of her latest books, written under her own name, Kaye Dobbie. I bought The Dark Dream online years ago after enjoying another novel of hers, The Bond, which I’d found in an American remainder bookstore.

The heroine goes by Ella Seaton, although her real name and identity are a mystery that unfolds throughout the book. She awakens with a painful head injury in the mud alongside Seaton’s Lagoon, not knowing who she is or why she’s there. A man rescues her and brings her to his friend Adam, a tinker on his way to the Bendigo goldfields. Adam calls her Cinderella – Ella for short – after finding a pair of discarded leather shoes nearby and seeing that they fit her.

Ella and Adam assume she was set upon by bushrangers and robbed. One of her fingers bears the mark of a ring, so they know she was married. As Adam cares for her during her recovery, they make their way via horse-drawn cart to the goldfields, tracing the route Ella may have originally followed, hoping someone can identify her. However, Adam has own secrets, dating back to his days as a California forty-niner. The dangers they face derive as much from Adam’s troubled past as Ella’s present situation: her lack of memory leaves her vulnerable to enemies she can’t anticipate.

Storylines involving amnesia can sometimes feel contrived, but to Sommers’ credit, her portrayal of Ella’s condition feels honest. Ella innately senses that she was gently born, and although she’s grateful for Adam’s help, she’s clearly uncomfortable with camping in the bush, the lack of cleanliness, and treating folks like Adam and his acquaintances as social equals. This allows for considerable character growth as the plot moves along. Flashes of Ella’s earlier life come to her in dreams she can’t recall after waking. I particularly liked the scene where she glimpses herself in a mirror for the first time, and fails to recognize herself immediately. My one problem with the storyline was Ella’s naïve assumption that returning to her husband should be her ultimate goal, even given evidence to the contrary.

I recommend the book for its exciting plot, slow-building romance, and depiction of the characters (some brave, some foolish, many disreputable) caught up in the Victorian gold rush. Anyone seeking The Dark Dream can find a cheap copy via Bookfinder. And maybe it will be re-released on Kindle some day.

This is my 2nd entry in the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2018.

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