Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 22, 2014

Gotland (2013), by Fiona Capp

No, it’s not the most appealing title I’ve ever come across, but Gotland is a terrific book.

(Don’t you love it when you get a good run of books that you really like, one after the other?)

In this absorbing novel, Fiona Capp has tapped into one of the key issues of our time: privacy for public figures, and how the public’s insatiable appetite for information about them distorts the very values that we want them to have.

Gotland is Sweden’s largest island, and in this novel it’s the place that Esther Chatwin escapes to, when the pressure of being Australia’s First Lady becomes more than she can bear.   Until her husband David became Prime Minister, Esther was a primary school teacher who loved her career.  An introvert who was happy to let others do the talking, she was reserved with adults but confident and assured with her pupils,  and for her, teaching Preps was very rewarding.  But David’s sudden elevation to the top job meant that she had to give it up.  I couldn’t help but think of Therese Rein having to give up her highly successful business to avoid a conflict of interest when her husband became PM.  I couldn’t help but think of Hazel Hawke, a retiring personality who found public life rather difficult.  Two very different women but both had no alternative but to alter their own identities in the service of their husbands’ ambitions.

But as we know, political wives and partners have to give up much more than the roles they formerly enjoyed.  They have to give up their privacy.  Everywhere they go, they are watched, not just by the media, but these days by anyone and everyone who has 24/7 access to social media.   They have to shelter their children from intrusive media, especially if (as with most children) there are occasional indiscretions.  They have to support their children when they are used as political weapons.  (Remember when the Opposition made a blood-sport out of a PM’s arrangements for his fifteen-year-old son so that he wasn’t left alone at night in The Lodge? It must have been a cruel humiliation for that boy to have all his schoolmates know about his ‘baby-sitter’).   And worst of all, especially if it’s a loving marriage, they have to acquiesce in the media makeover of the spouse.  For Esther, her husband’s abandonment of the idealism that attracted her turns him into a kind of stranger in the marriage.  Seeing him in a pin-striped business suit is the catalyst for a dismay that never leaves her.

Capp traces Esther’s loss of the life she had enjoyed with David.  Two years after she has had to give up teaching, she goes back to her old school to visit as the Prime Minister’s Wife:

Although I’d taught all levels up to grade six, I’d made a specialty of teaching preps. Because most had not yet learned to disguise their feelings, you knew where you stood with them.  And when something clicked, when something sank in, you saw it immediately on their faces.  I particularly loved the way they would say whatever came into their heads.  Sure, it was hard to get them to concentrate for any period of time but there were plenty of rewards.  At the beginning of each year, most of them could barely recite the alphabet, and by the end, they were starting to read.

As I watched the preps walking arm in arm with their friends, ogling the older kids and clamouring around the teacher on duty, it came back to me how they were always bursting.  Bursting to go to the toilet, bursting for a drink, bursting with something to say, bursting with curiosity.  Until I stopped teaching and found myself mostly in the company of adults, I hadn’t realised how much I’d thrived on this restless, explosive energy; how it awakens the forgotten child who lives inside you.  Now, when I do talks in schools, it is all very formal and restrained.  I am a visitor, painfully conscious of my role as the prime minister’s wife.  There is no sense of connection with the place or the students.  (p.  28-9)

Her own political beliefs have to be constrained, while her husband’s university anarchism has to be massaged into something politically acceptable.  Her teenage daughter Kate is hurt when a painting given as birthday present isn’t hung on the walls of the PM’s office.  This same daughter’s misbehaviour becomes a political issue to be ‘managed’ rather than a family matter.  They can’t even have a quiet dinner together without minders and advisers. On and on it goes, until there is one intrusion too many – a catalyst for panic attacks.

For someone as private as Esther, there has to be a bolt-hole, and it’s the remote island of Gotland.  She goes there to meet up with her sister Ros, who’s having treatment for breast cancer.  They are both friends with the enigmatic Sven, a sculptor, who shares the same artistic values as Kate.  Esther thinks she’s safe from prying eyes in Gotland – but of course she’s not.  There’s nowhere that’s private any more, nowhere in the world.

Written in chapters which alternate in time and place, leading up to Esther’s ascension to the unwanted role of First Lady and the effect that has on their loving relationship, Gotland is a thought-provoking book.

Rosemary Sorenson reviewed it at the Sydney Review of Books, but there are spoilers, so leave reading it till after you’ve finished the book.

Author: Fiona Capp
Title: Gotland
Publisher: Fourth Estate (Harper Collins), 2013
ISBN: 9780732297572
Source: Personal copy, purchased from Benn’s Books Bentleigh


Fishpond: Gotland


  1. This does sound good, Lisa, but doesn’t appear to be available in the UK… yet. I’ve long had my eye on her travel memoir My Blood’s Country.


    • My Blood’s Country is gorgeous – I couldn’t believe it was written by the same author as Musk and Byrne!


  2. I read Night Surfing by Fiona Capp last year and, while I didn’t think the story was great, the writing and characterisation was. I have put Fiona Capp on my to read list.


    • I’ll keep an eye out for that one too:)


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