Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2016

Salt Creek, by Lucy Treloar

Salt Creek From a book about First Contact in Canada, to one set in the Coorong of South Australia, a coastal wetland between Goolwa and Mount Gambier and one of the most beautiful wild places on earth.  The Coorong is a national park now, and has been since 1966 though the birdlife in the lagoon is fragile due to reduced freshwater inflows from silting upstream.

In this elegiac novel, Lucy Treloar writes of the damage done by settlers to the complex ecosystems which sustained the traditional owners, the Ngarrindjeri people for thousands of years.  And like Joseph Boyden in The Orenda, she writes of the misguided arrogance of a proselytiser who believes in a mission to ‘improve’ the indigenous people and the disastrous consequences of the settlement.  But there the resemblances end, because Treloar chooses a very different style, tone and characterisation for her novel, a novel which justly deserves its nomination for this year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award.  (It has already won the Indie Book of the Year (Debut Fiction Category) 2016.)

Through the sole voice of her character Hester Finch, Treloar subverts the pioneer myth.  The novel begins in Chichester in England 1874 with Hester (Hetty) reflecting on events, but most of the story reverts to her youth in the Coorong in 1855.  There, with revolving debts that he refuses to acknowledge, Hester’s feckless father has ruined his family and brought them to his sole remaining asset: a pastoral lease on The Coorong where he has built a ramshackle home of found timbers.  His failed enterprise was a whaling station, and his flock of sheep has been shipwrecked.  So now he intends to raise cattle for cheese making, to restore their fortunes.  This dictatorial father rejects any help from wealthy grandparents in Adelaide and builds castles in the sand.

Grieving for her losses (including the death of one of her small children) his wife is suffering from depression though it’s not named as such, and teenage Hetty struggles to manage the domestic responsibilities that fall to her.  These include – as well as cooking, cleaning, washing, sewing and cheese making – the care of her mother and the baby Mary, the teaching of her younger brothers Albert and Fred, and the discipline of her wild and wilful sister Addie (Adelaide).  Her thuggish older brothers Hugh and Stanton are arrogant and disdainful about Hetty’s unusual looks, her high intelligence and her unconventional independence. It could be a lonely life of drudgery for this family, but the children find ways to amuse themselves when the day’s work is done, and despite a catalogue of disasters all of them in their different ways have a faint shred of hope that things could improve.

The land on which Finch settles is already occupied, of course.   Wisely, Treloar does not appropriate a conjectured perspective of the dispossessed Ngarrindjeri people: the reader encounters instead Hetty’s generally empathetic interpretation of their point of view, but the reader can see that she often gets it gravely wrong.  Through the mixed-race character of Tully, whose white parentage is left open to conjecture, we see a young man stranded between two worlds.  He speaks English because his mother learned it from the whalers who captured her, but he knows the stories of every corner, every outcrop, every island.  Brought into the Finch household to be educated as a ‘civilised’ mentor for his people, but not officially adopted, Tully rarely counters the unconscious racism of the family, but when he does, it’s devastating:

In a moment of crisis, Hetty thinks her sister will be safe because she is white.

‘He wouldn’t hurt Addie, surely.’

‘Because she is white?  That makes her safe?’ He regarded me in silence for a few seconds, as if he saw something in me that filled him with melancholy.  ‘You don’t think you are better than black people.  You know it, don’t you?  It is inside you, this belief, like your heart.’  He thumped his chest.  ‘Birds don’t think: I will fly.  They are flight. It is what they do and it is what they are.  In what you do, what you are, you know that you are better, but not to me, not to blacks, to yourselves only. (p. 319)

Hetty’s brothers are scornful about the Quaker philosophy that all men are equal and they are dismissive of any rights of the remaining indigenous people. Conflict erupts over fishing grounds and water rights, but it is when Addie falls in love with Tully that Finch’s hypocrisy is revealed and the story reaches its devastating climax.

Salt Creek is a haunting story, beautifully written and quietly subversive.  It’s a spectacular debut.

Peter Pierce reviewed it in The Australian.

Author: Lucy Treloar
Title: Salt Creek
Publisher: Picador (Pan Macmillan), 2015
ISBN: 9781743533192
Source: Personal library, purchased from Benn’s Books $29.99

Available from Fishpond Salt Creek and good bookstores everywhere.


Responses

  1. […] Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar, Pan Macmillan, see my review […]

  2. I must try to read this too. The setting for a start is very appealing – or, perhaps I mean fascinating.

    • Oh, I know you’ll love this, Sue:)

  3. Sounds like a must read. I lived for a while in Murray Bridge and the Coorong is one of my favourite places. It kills me that the cotton farmers on the NSW/Qld border are able to starve it of water.

    • It was always going to happen once the states demanded more of a say. Big selfish states with powerful agricultural lobbies win, poor states trying to protect the environment lose. Water rights in Australia should be managed at the federal level to stop this sort of thing happening IMO.

    • I’m not sure why we are growing cotton!

      • or rice, or coffee…

        • Yes, I was going to add rice — though these’s some interesting research being done about a native rice in northern Australia. That would be interesting. Is coffee being grown in irrigated areas too? Tea is being grown in areas that are climate-suitable I believe, though I haven’t investigated it in any serious way, but I haven’t followed Australian coffee at all.

          • I think we should be self-sufficient in as many essentials as possible, but not at the expense of killing our rivers.

  4. […] for this year’s Miles Franklin Award I would like to try to fit it in. but you can check out Lisa’s review at […]

  5. […] year’s Miles Franklin Literary Award shortlist, for her splendid debut novel Salt Creek.  (See my review).  Treloar has also won the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year at the ABIA awards, and […]

  6. Add this to my list for sure, thanks for the heads up!

  7. […] Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (see my review) […]

  8. […] Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar (Picador Australia) (see my review) […]

  9. […] Treloar has also written movingly about the realities of settlement including dispossession in Salt Creek; while in Robbed of Every Blessing, John Tully draws a link between the colonial appropriation of […]


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