This is the unforgettable story of the Toads of Cemetery Road. Theirs is a marriage of convenience: Gin to escape a mental institution, Toad to escape the censure of a country community. The arrival of two Italian POWs on their farm brings music, sensuality and a love that will fan the flames of small-town bigotry.
But other books kept getting in the way and so when I saw the title as an audio book in the library, I borrowed it, and have spent the last fortnight’s commute fascinated by the story.
This is a character-driven novel. Gin (Virginia) and Toad are a mismatched couple indeed. She, an albino traumatised by events I won’t reveal, was in a mental hospital when the opportunist Toad proposed to her. It was her chance to get out of there, and his to find anyone willing to marry him. A white knight he is not…
The Toads live in a remote place called Wyalkatchem in Western Australia, on a not-very-successful farm. They are isolated by their poverty, their individual strangeness and their strangeness as a couple. Gin in particular is the subject of suspicion, superstition and overt abuse from the locals, while Toad is an object of fun because of his grotesque appearance, unappealing personal habits and his collection of vintage ladies corsets.
It’s not a good marriage. Toad is an eccentric, dirty slob. Gin was a potential concert pianist, a cultured woman who loves to read and make music. Somehow, amidst the drudgery of wartime farm work, she finds time to play the piano and keep her hand in, but she doesn’t attempt to teach her children how to play. They are almost feral due to neglect, a consequence of Gin’s inability to cope with the loss of Joan, her first child and the only one born albino like her. But hostilities between Gin and Toad remain quiescent under a veneer of what passes for normal life until the arrival of two Italian POWs, assigned to work on their farm because of the wartime shortage of manpower. Antonio is a gorgeous sexy fellow given to bursting into romantic arias which capture Gin’s lonely heart, while John proves alluring in a different way…
The local community is outraged by the presence of the enemy in their midst, and even more outraged by the unconcealed romance. Toad doesn’t care at first because he has no idea how to love a woman and can’t really believe that anyone would fancy an albino. But eventually jealousy emerges because Antonio shows him that Gin is beautiful in her own way. Then there is resentment, hypocrisy, betrayal and cruelty.
It is a measure of how skilfully this book is plotted that the reader’s hopes for Gin, who has never been loved before, never falter. Antonio has a much-loved wife and family at home in Italy, he is a POW, neither of them have any money or any prospect of getting any. She has every reason to leave Toad, except her children, but he has every reason to go home, until….no, I won’t reveal that either.
There are shocking events portrayed in this complex tale of love and loss, and the concluding chapters are all the more sobering for being based on real events.
Goldie Goldbloom grew up in Western Australia and her characters’ voices are quintessentially Australian. Boss Cocky shrieks ‘shut up shut up shut up’ from the branches in tune with Gin’s rebellious thoughts, and ‘the land of drought and flooding rains’ is superbly evoked. Goldbloom now lives in America – which might be a loss to Australian literature, but then again, with her ability to create quirky Aussie characters, who knows, she might be another Peter Carey!
This book is published in America under the IMO horrible title, Toads’ Museum of Freaks and Wonders. The Australian title is much more appropriate because Antonio is a shoemaker, and the shoes he creates in Australia are symbols of the ones he loves. Miniature shoes for his family line the window ledge in his room, but he measures up feet and makes shoes for other characters too…
The narration bby Taylor Owens is excellent, capturing the voices of a diverse range of characters and almost making me weep towards the end.
Author: Goldie Goldbloom
Title: The Paperbark Shoe
Publisher (audio book): Louis Braille Audio 2010, ISBN MP3 9781742124896 or CDs 9781742124179:
Publisher (book) Fremantle Press, ISBN: 9781921696404
Source: (audio book) Casey Cardinia Library; (book) Personal library, purchased at Benn’s Books, $32.95
Louis Braille Audiobook The Paperbark Shoe: 10 Spoken Word CDs, 12.25 Hours
Book: The Paperbark Shoe