Saturday, December 26, 2015

Vacation reading: Anna Romer's Lyrebird Hill, set in modern and turn-of-the-century rural Australia

If you celebrate Christmas, hope you had a nice holiday yesterday. I’ve been taking some time off for the break, and we didn’t travel anywhere for a change. Instead, I’ve been enjoying the quiet time at home and am catching up on reading, in particular titles that I’d bought but hadn’t had the chance to pick up.

One of these is Anna Romer’s Lyrebird Hill. Since I’d been neglecting the Australian Women Writers Challenge, it seemed like a good choice.

It’s a dual-period novel about two women, generations apart, and the gradual discovery of traumatic secrets from the past – and their impact on the present time. Yes, I know; this premise could be used to describe many novels. It’s become a common theme. You’ll find them compared to Kate Morton’s style, since she’s the most prominent and successful author in the field (and her characterizations and complex structures remain unsurpassed, imho).

Where Lyrebird Hill stands out are in the author’s obvious love for the wild landscapes of rural Australia – the descriptions of the local botany and terrain of northern New South Wales are worth reading at leisure – and her evocation of Australia’s traumatic past, specifically white settlers’ ruthless treatment of the Aboriginal peoples. Romer also successfully employs the same sleight-of-hand that all good mystery writers use. Although the beginning of both women’s segments unfolded as expected, several final revelations were startling. Since I’ve read a great many novels with parallel narratives and recognize their patterns, I love it when they can surprise me.

The protagonist of the earlier segment is Brenna Magavin, a young woman of nineteen living with her father and younger brother on an isolated, 3000-acre estate called Lyrebird Hill in 1898. She spends her days illustrating local flora and spending time with the Aborigines at their encampment on their property, despite continuing tensions and her aunt’s disapproval. Although Brenna makes a brave sacrifice to preserve their land, and her situation evokes empathy as it becomes steadily more dire, I admit I had trouble warming to her following one naïve, thoughtless act she commits.

Thirty-year-old bookshop owner Ruby Cardel, in the present day, is at a crossroads in life. She has an attractive boyfriend who writes bestselling self-help manuals, but suspects he’s cheating. When Ruby attends an exhibition of her estranged mother’s artwork, an elderly former neighbor who she meets there implies that her sister Jamie’s death, eighteen years earlier, was no accident. When Ruby decides to return to Lyrebird Hill, her childhood home, her amnesia from long ago slowly begins to lift.

While the douchebag boyfriend has become a trope – ditching him lets a heroine show her empowerment and opens the possibility of a new romance – Ruby’s gradual uncovering of her past, and her knowledge about herself, is emotionally involving. Her family relationships, specifically with her mother, are refreshingly absent of stereotype.

How the two plotlines come together appears later in the book, so I won’t reveal the details. Lyrebird Hill is worth seeking out, although it’s getting harder for American readers to do that. The audio version is at Amazon, but for the print, try; it’s not in stock at Fishpond anymore, even though the mass market paperback just came out in September. Other suggestions welcome.

Lyrebird Hill was published by Simon & Schuster Australia in 2014 (trade pb, 404pp), which is the copy I bought last year. The mass market pb is priced at A$19.99, or NZ$21.99.  This is my 4th entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.


  1. Anna Romer's Thornwood House has been sitting in my reading pile for a while. I have Lyrebird Hill requested from the library. The hints for it to be under the Christmas tree weren't taken up, but if it's hard to get a copy at a reasonable price then that is perhaps why.

    Your Christmas sounds like mine - a quiet one. A welcome change from the usual hustle and bustle. Enjoy the rest of your break and best wishes for 2016.

    1. Thanks, and hope you have a wonderful 2016 as well.

      Thornwood House is another I have on the TBR, and I'm glad I picked it up early because it's also hard to find in the US now except in audio. I'll be interested to hear what you think of Lyrebird Hill. Glad the library had a copy you could get!