Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 20, 2010

The China Garden (2009), by Kristina Olsson

The China GardenLast week at dinner with friends, one of our company was very recently bereaved.  Talking about her brother, this very elderly lady mentioned that she was the ‘surprise child’ in the family, the one hidden for many years because she was born out of wedlock to a Catholic mother and packed off to the country to be brought up by an aunt.  I haven’t known this lady for very long, but this is the second time she has talked about the enduring pain of not knowing her biological mother and not really belonging in the family.  It is obviously preying on her mind, and it’s hard to know what to say that might be of any comfort to her.

The China Garden explores this fraught theme of distorted identity in a novel whose characters emerge from the postwar period when the absence of effective birth control created many victims of rigid social mores.

Middle-aged Laura has returned to a coastal Queensland town to bury her mother only to discover that there are secrets in Angela’s life.  Cress, an enigmatic older woman with some quirky behaviours, has secrets too, while Kieran, in his thirties and yet as simple as a child, unwittingly knows more than either of the women do.

And no one really knows Abby at all.

Those who pick up the pieces both metaphorically and literally are unprepared for what they find, believing only briefly ‘as if knowing, or understanding, might be a choice.  As if a past could br chosen and another one ignored’. (p57)

The book is written in a reflective tone, with beautifully apt imagery:

She picked up the postcard and held it to her nose, inhaling the faint mustiness of the Bible, long untouched.  Now the feeling brought an image of walking into the church, pausing, taking a deep breath.  Faith, she realised now, had a smell.  Not the candles and incense of some churches.  For her it was bleached pine and old leather, songbooks, Bibles.  The scrubbed air of wooden buildings and cleanliness.  It was the smell of virtue. (p26)

The style is authentically Australian:

Here in his office, in context, his accent was different.  Perhaps his surroundings diluted it.  The sun streaming in through the high windows, hot air flicked around by a ticking overhead fan, the surfboard propped in the corner.  The sound of the sea across the road.  A ripple of confusion ran through her as she looked around: surfboard, wetsuit, numerous pieces of sculpture.  On one wall an enormous dot painting in brilliant shades of green and pink and yellow.  Then Fergus himself: younger than she’d imagined, a bit dishevelled, pale hair matted by the surf.  She breathed in: sea air, salt.  It didn’t even smell like a lawyer’s office. But there was the untidy cram of legal books on a shelf above the desk, the law school diploma above it, the mess of papers and files. (p27)

There are classy allusions to the classics –  Silas Marner and Martin Chuzzlewit – and at times it seems as if every word and phrase is weighted with meaning.  It’s a book that demands concentration because the stories of the main characters are interwoven in short sometimes overlapping sequences of time and place.


Olsson dissects the impact of Laura’s discovery with precision.  Anyone who has had a similar shock about the circumstances of his or her birth will recognise the tumult of emotion.  Well-intentioned or otherwise, people who lie or conceal the truth in this way take away one’s sense of identity and knowledge of self, and it’s irretrievable damage:

Summoning reason, locating words and faces.  Hers,  his.  She knew she would have to look for them both, this new Angela, this Paul…now that there was this new Paul in her blood, as well as an unfamiliar Angela, she had no definite idea who Laura was. (p32)

The China Garden won the 2010  Barbara Jefferis award.  The prize, worth $35,000, is awarded for  ‘the best novel written by an Australian author that depicts women and girls in a positive way or otherwise empowers the status of women and girls in society’. For more information about the award see the Australian Society of Authors website and you can see happy snaps of the award ceremony here, together with the judges’ report.

Both Sandra Hogan at MC Reviews and Our Brisbane recommend taking time to savour it.  Amanda Meale at Belletrista loved the way ‘the Australian bush and the coastline weave their own spell.’  

Author: Kristina Olsson
Title: The China Garden
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2009
ISBN: 9780702236976
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP.


  1. Sounds like an interesting read, and just the sort I’d enjoy Lisa. I haven’t heard of the author…and had forgotten, when I saw your review, that she was the winner of that award.


  2. Yes, Sue, I think it is your kind of book, and you’ll be doing me a favour if you let me send it up to you because I have nowhere to put it here, the book-shelves are full and I am going to have to part with some treasures!


  3. […] Kristina Olssen (The China Garden) (see my review) […]


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