16 July 2014
Nina Moore’s life and passion belongs to farming and conserving the rare and beautiful marshland of Billabong Bend which feeds off the Murray-Darling river system and neighbours her property, Red Gums. With the owner of the property, Eva, a close friend of hers now being confined to an old-age home, it is Nina’s biggest dream to own Billabong Bend in order to make it into a sanctuary and keep at bay the hunters who are intent on destroying it along with the magnificent wetland birdlife. Although Eva has continually turned down her offers to purchase Billabong, this hasn’t deterred Nina from taking Billabong under her wing, so to speak, by unassumingly becoming the fierce guardian of the natural life there, frequently rehabilitating the injured wildlife she comes across and assisting in their reintroduction to their natural environment.
In an effort to give back to the land, Nina’s use of sustainable farm practices has enabled her to address issues and significant threats to both natural resources and the environment. The drought hasn’t helped much, but she’s doing well. Her neighbour, however, Max Bonelli, continues to farm cotton at Donnalee, draining the Bunyip River of its precious water so that he can harvest bonus crops. This has always been a source of discontent between him and a large number of town residents, including her father but Max has always seen farming as a contest with this being the major reason why his wife left him fifteen years before, whisking her son Ric back to her homeland of Italy to escape the constant feuding.
Now, Ric Bonelli is back with his daughter, Sophie, to build a relationship with the father who thought that his son had deserted him in favour of his mother in a bid to give her some familial stability – something she has never had. Having only recently learnt of Sophie’s existence after receiving a telephone call from the hospital where her mother has been admitted, it’s hard enough for him to come to terms with the fact that he has a daughter let alone deal with his father’s farming and hunting ways.
As he and Nina rediscover their secret friendship from all those years before, her and Sophie also forge a bond borne out of their love for the natural world, from the horses at Red Gums to the amazing birdlife that surrounds them. Soon enough though, Ric becomes caught between a rock and a hard place when he finds himself being drawn more and more into Nina’s world and dreams with seemingly insurmountable odds getting in the way of the two star-struck lovers.
When tragedy strikes the Bonnelli family, triggering the appearance of an ancient giant trout who leaves a storm of epic proportions in his wake, Ric, scrambles to do the right thing while Nina is left both angry and shattered, wondering whether they will ever be able to find their way back to what they had before.
Ms Scoullar writes Australian rural and environmental fiction and, as with her previous novel, Currawong Creek (my review here), she gives us a fresh take on the rural fiction sub-genre transporting us to a fully developed setting with a visceral sense of place. From the dedication at the beginning of this novel as well as various interviews and posts around the web, it is evident that Ms Scoullar is an enthusiastic conservationist who makes the landscape and rare beauty of the endangered marshland habitat the heart and soul of Billabong Bend, as her passion for conservation shines through the eyes of her characters.
Set against the backdrop of the beautiful riverlands of Northern NSW, the landscape and its fauna and flora play a pivotal role in the mounting tension as Ms Scoullar makes good use of her location by bringing the river into her story, interweaving it through her characters’ lives. She deftly creates believable conflict and escalates the rising tension and suspense by adding the dramatic appearance of the Aboriginal dreamtime legend, Guddhu, the Murray Cod, thereby enhancing the tone and atmosphere of the novel.
A committed conservationist, Ms Scoullar believes that “we fix the world one day at a time, one person at a time, one action at a time” and this is evident as her characters are challenged and shaped by the complex environment in which they find themselves. Quite clearly she has put a lot of time, effort and research into the writing of this novel, giving us a truly informative read with a strong conservation message in a world which becomes intimately known by the reader because it is intimately known by the writer. The lush wetlands and birdlife drew me in as I, like Sophie, discovered a whole new world.
There are some truly beautiful moments in this novel, specifically in regard to Sophie and the geese she so stoically assumes single parenthood over, and I found the scenes where she nurtures and teaches them to fly, particularly touching.
In this story about determination, forgiveness and that powerful feeling we get when we give back to nature, I felt that Ms Scoullar’s writing was a call to celebrate and protect the diversity and delicacy of our beautiful Australian heritage.