The Silence of Water by first-time author Sharron Booth is an historial novel set in Adelaide and Fremantle. It was short-listed for the 2020 City of Fremantle Hungerford Award. The story spans three generations of the family of a convict who arrived in Australia in 1861. Meticulously researched, the novel is based on the life of Edwin Salt, a one-time tailor, convicted of a heinous crime in England.
Complexity of The Silence of Water
The novel moves backwards and forwards in time between 1848 and 1907. Movement between England and Australia, Adelaide and Fremante, as well as a large number of interesting characters create a plot which tantalises the reader with its complexity.
At one point, I felt tempted to imitate a close friend who’d encountered a similarly complex novel (I forget which one). We belonged to fairly sophisticated bookclub. My friend confessed that she’d had to read that month’s book, ‘story-by-story’ or character-by-character. She then put the whole story together when she re-read the novel.
While at first I found the structure of The Silence of Water confusing, it soon made sense. Details of the lives of three generations are braided, adding to the plot, and this also added to my enjoyment.Read more
Agnes and George and their three children find themselves in chaos when asked to move from Adelaide where they are well-settled to Fremantle. Edwin Salt’s third wife, Annie, has summonsed Agnes to care for her father. Annie says she will no longer put up with the drunken behaviour of the eighty-year-old.
Changing location upsets everyone. In particular, Fan (Frances), the only daughter and oldest child of Agnes and George, seems to take the move especially hard. Over time, however, she bonds with her grandfather. They enjoy each other’s company. Fan is curious about Edwin’s life, and he discloses information about it. Snooping for even more secrets, the girl discovers that her grandfather’s first wife died in childbirth and that he murdered his second wife before marrying Annie.
In The Silence of Watewr, Sharron Booth develops the main characters with sympathy and depth. One can feel the angst of the young Fan, uprooted from the place where her childhood has been spent beside the ocean which she loves.
One can almost understand the belief of Edwin Salt. He thinks, in spite of the evil he has done, he is a ‘good man’. This belief was supported by the penal system in England at the time. Because his wife drank alcohol and provoked him, the law considered this a mitigating circumstance. Although he murdered his wife, his conviction was changed from murder to manslaughter with the lesser penalty of transportation.
Here is one of many possible examples, of Sharron Booth’s ability to paint a character. It describes Agnes’s husband, George Johnson.
…George Johnson wasn’t so much born as hammered together with nails and rivets in the Sunderland shipyards. The teacher at the church school had sid he was missing ‘apptitude’, mostly because of his gubby face and the holes in his trousers, but in truth George was sharp as flint.
Serious themes written with empathy make this novel an important addition to writing about the life of colonial Australia, and especially of Western Australia. Well-researched history includes the difficulties of living in colonial Australia at the end of the nineteenth century. Poverty and hardship underly the lives of ordinary people, who struggle to get work. I thought it particularly poignant that for Agnes and George, her father Edwin became a ‘boarder’ in their home.
The lives of women and girls must have been particularly difficult, as they struggled to ‘make-do’ with the little they had. Alcoholism and family and domestic violence sit at the heart of the story.
There are echoes in this novel of the concept: ‘See what you made me do.’ This has been documented by Australian journalist Jess Hill in a book and television documentary series of the same name. The work of Jess Hill deals with the complexity of domestic violence which in Australia leads to the murder of around one woman a week. News reports often contain comments from neighbours and friends about the murderers, saying in essence, ‘He was a good bloke.’
Setting in The Silence of Water
I thoroughly enjoyed the settings in this novel, particularly descriptions of Fremantle which is a few kilometres from where I live. Fan and Agnes like to swim and the beaches of Western Australia and South Australia come to life with Booth’s descriptions. The beaches run through the novel like a signature tune, adding much to the texture of the novel.
Anyone who enjoys historical, and especially Australian historical fiction would welcome the addition of this book to their library.
Bookclub members will find much to discuss, including themes, writing style, plot and characters.
Teachers would find much of value to discuss with students, including plot, themes, characterisation, language and writing skills.
I recently reviewed Kate Grenville’s novel, A Room Made of Leaves, also about colonial Australia. You can access the article by clicking here.
This review is linked to the weekly challenge of my friends, SueW who blogs at nans.farm.net and her blogging partner, CG, who blogs at themainaisle It would be good if you’d check out their websites by clicking on the highlighs.