This Place you Know, Christina Houen’s first book, tells of heartbreak, betrayal and, eventually, redemption. It explores some of the many facets of love in a poignant story, beautifully told. At the same time provides an important insight into Australian social history.
In the first part of this fictionalised memoir, Christina Houen brings the voice of her mother, Martha, to life. Based on her mother’s letters, she tells Martha’s story from her mother’s point of view. In the second part, Christina tells her own story of a difficult childhood and adolescence. There is evidence of thorough research throughout the book.
Martha, a classics scholar, lives with her middle-class family on the coast of New South Wales until 1923 when she is sent as a teacher to the town of Hay. Life is hard for a single woman in the outback. However, it becomes even more difficult for Martha when she falls in love with Henry, they marry and settle on a small sheep property on a river in the district.
The early days of their marriage, establishment of their sheep flock and beginning their family of five children coincide with the Great Depression. This hit Australia, and especially rural Australia, hard. World War II soon followed the Depression. Unreliable rainfall and drought made farming life even more precarious.
Poverty and the oppressive heat of Australian summers in the outback combined with isolation make life even more difficult. An overriding fear of another pregnancy takes its toll on the couple. A final pregnancy when Martha is 45 is almost too much to bear. Then, one-by-one the older children leave home to attend boarding school.
In 1947, Henry abandons Martha for another woman. Martha decides to continue to work the property by herself. She has only the help of their youngest child, seven-year-old Anna, and the occasional assistance from her sons who return during school holidays.
A few years later, Henry returns to reclaim the now-thriving farm. In the days before the Family Law Act, 1975, women could not claim anything from their husbands when marriages broke down. They were ineligible for Social Security payments. Martha is forced to leave the farm and Hay. She resumes her teaching career to support Anna and pay for her boarding school.
Christina Houen’s love of the land where she grew up is evident in the lyricism of the prose throughout This Place You Know. As well as that, a recurrent poetic theme occurs in which a mystical crone appears in the sunburnt land:
An old woman, wrinkled and skinny, sits on a patch of red earth, her head bent, intent on a patient and silent task. Her fingers, knotted and twisted, move nimbly back and forth. It is not wool she is shaping into a simple chained fabric that gleams silvery-grey in the moonlight, but vegetable matter that she unwinds from a large irregular ball lying on the bare earth beside her.
The beautiful cover of This Place You Know was designed using one of Christina Houen’s own pastel paintings, Paterson’s Curse on the Hay Plains, from a photograph by Rob Oliver, taken about 2014.
This book would make an ideal choice for book clubs because of its touching story, accessible writing and its importance as Australian social history of life on the land and, in particular, the role played by women in farming life.
I first met Christina Marigold Houen in 2003, when we were both candidates for Doctor of Philosophy Degrees, although at different universities. We became friends. I had the privilege of reading early drafts of what would later become This Place You Know. I bought my copy of the book the week before it’s launch.
This Place You Know (Paperback) Details
Published June 7th 2019 by Ginninderra Press
Paperback, 244 pages
Author: Christina Houen
Australian Writers Challenge 2019
This review is part of my commitment to the Australian Writers Challenge 2019. The aim of the Challenge is to encourage the work of Australian woman writers in all genres.