Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 28, 2017

Stars Across the Ocean, by Kimberley Freeman

It sounds daft, I know, but I can’t read Richard Flanagan’s new novel First Person in bed because it’s a hardback.  It’s also deliciously thought-provoking, which is not ideal for bedtime reading, so I decided to take a look at a paperback that’s been languishing in my box of ‘maybes’ since July…

Stars Across the Ocean is badged as commercial women’s fiction on the blurb, and Kimberley Freeman is the pseudonym of Kim Wilkins, a prolific and award winning author across many genres who is also a teacher of creative writing at the University of Queensland.  She is very popular at Goodreads, where this and her other novels have pages and pages of 5 star ratings.

In an academic paper called ‘Popular genres and the Australian literary community: the case of fantasy fiction (2008), Wilkins analyses the way the literary community fails to pay attention to fiction outside the ‘genre’ of ‘Australian literary realism’.  Amongst other things she makes the point that:

Australian fantasy fiction has three strikes against its name: it is popular, not literary; it is set in European landscapes and history, not in Australian landscapes and history; and it is fantastic, not realist. (Kim Wilkins (2008) Popular genres and the Australian literary community: the case of fantasy fiction, Journal of Australian Studies, 32:2, 265-278, DOI:10.1080/14443050802056771)

Wilkins makes a convincing case for the way that commercial fiction gets little in the way of reviews despite its enduring popularity and commercial success, (though whether this is still true since the advent of the Australian Women Writers Challenge and the proliferation of online book review blogs, I can’t say). But prompted by my reading of Stars Across the Oceans, I’d hazard a guess that there are/were two reasons for this: firstly, most reviewers (whose credibility requires that they be widely read and therefore able to make informed judgements) probably don’t enjoy writing negative reviews and secondly, there really isn’t much to say about the formulaic writing of comfort reading a.k.a. beach reading.  Still, I’ll have a go, and perhaps bump up the stats…

Stars Across the Ocean is framed around two ‘indomitable’ women, one in the 21st century who is coming to terms with her mother’s decline into dementia and a failing marriage, and the other an impoverished Victorian era foundling who, in a highly improbable tale, seeks her birth mother in a quest that takes her from the north of England to London, Paris, Colombo and Melbourne.  These two narratives link together as Tori (Victoria) sorts out her historian mother’s research papers and finds the scattered pages of the unmarried mother’s confessional letter to her daughter.  Two love stories emerge with the requisite satisfyingly romantic conclusions.

The book is 447 pages long but I had worked out the plot ‘twist’ half way through, (page 265, I may have been a little slow) so the rest of the book was an exercise in observing how the author had managed to avoid overtly revealing it till the last chapters.  (Mostly achieved by laboriously not referring to a certain character by name).

What interested me was the inclusion of some deliberate taunts at ‘high culture’.  Trying to amuse her demented mother, Tori brings Margaret’s books from home to the clinic and reads to her, but finds George Eliot dull and slow.  Her Victorian counterpart likewise dismisses opera when she attends with her chivalrous rescuer Julius:

But the opera was the least interesting thing about her visit to the theatre.  Agnes quite liked the costumes, but could hardly bear the warbling voices and the deafening crescendos. (p. 215)

Julius, BTW is likewise orphaned but was taken into an aristocratic household rather than a foundling home, and likewise abandoned by Genevieve (the woman Agnes has identified as her birth mother).  Improbably, Julius hires Agnes as a companion for his aunt though she has no references, and subsequently doesn’t sack her when he finds her going through his desk but falls in love with her instead.  Agnes, improbably, spurns the opportunity to make a beaut marriage to a rich and improbably forgiving sort of bloke, and (because she is indomitable, I guess) continues her quest to find her mother, so she eventually ends up in a theatre which gives Freeman the opportunity for another barb: The Winter’s Tale goes over Agnes’s head when she sees it because she had never read any Shakespeare except for a few sonnets in school. […] She could not follow the plot.  Not simply because they used a stilted language she could barely understand, but also…  (#PlotSpoilerFollows though any reasonably alert reader has worked things out by the time this scene occurs).

Now why would an author (with a PhD!) deliberately insert these particular irrelevant offsides?  Presumably because her target audience will identify with them.  (Not unlike that canny red-haired fellow-Queenslander who deliberately parades her ignorance about issues in order to harvest the votes of people who identify with not understanding things too?)

Stars Across the Ocean is a fantasy novel without the medieval castles and Germanic folklore.  It is a Sara Crewe fantasy of a pauperised child who unbeknownst to all, is the legitimate heir to The Good Life.  Agnes earns her reward not from being a saintly Victorian child but by being Brave and Selfless and Independent and #Indomitable in an age where such recklessness would otherwise have ended up in the poor- or the whore-house.  She rejects material comforts and money and the only affection she has ever had (i.e. Julian) but she gets it all anyway because despite Julian being a Single Man in Possession of a Good Fortune, not to mention her long absence on exhaustive travels –  he waits for her.  And in the 21st century Tori gets her reward (A Nice Man Who Understands Her) by leaving Australia’s sunny skies to come home and look after her poor old (and exasperating) mum in England’s horrid climate.  And gosh, Tori also reads George Eliot to her – what greater self-sacrifice could there be, eh?

Read it and enjoy it for what it is.

Other reviews:

  • Kate Forsyth, not bashful about reviewing a book in which she is thanked as a soul sister
  • Ashleigh Meikle who says it’s a great read for lovers of historical fiction, and anyone who has read and enjoyed authors such as Kate Forsyth.
  • Jess Just Reads, who picked the twist after 100 pages but still found it intriguing and engaging.

Author: Kimberley Freeman
Title: Stars Across the Ocean
Publisher: Hachette, 2017
ISBN: 9780733633546
Review copy courtesy of Hachette


Responses

  1. Good on you for making your way to the end. I did my duty by reviewing Liane Moriarty (twice!) not an experience I wish to repeat.

    • Ah well, it’s long but it’s very easy reading. Just an overnighter…

  2. I’ve read Liane Moriarty. The first one in her Japanese trilogy. I quite liked it because it was something different, but when it came to reading the next one I balked at buying it and meant to find it at the library and then forgot…

  3. This why I have my Beach & Public Transport category: to point out the good beach readings.
    This remind me of the time I tried to read one of those (can’t even remember the writer’s name) and couldn’t finish it. I admire your fortitude. I do not want to know how the book will end when I’m only half way through it.

    • That’s a good category to have!
      It’s why I have a box of Maybes. Publishers send me all kinds of books but sometimes enthusiastic young interns (who haven’t read my review policy) send me books that don’t appeal at all, and they go straight to the Op Shop (as per my review policy). But sometimes there are books that I think *might* be ok, and if I have time or inclination I give them a go, especially if I’m in the mood for some light reading.
      Some of them I don’t read past page 50, but this one had a better-than-usual structure and the characterisation of the C21st mother-daughter relationship was interesting, and topical too, given how many of my generation are now struggling through the final years of our parents. I think it would have been a better book if the author had focussed on the torment of separation from an elderly parent – but of course, *chuckle* readers can’t rewrite the author’s book, can we?

      • I guess not but they can give authors fuel for future books.

        I like light reads too but they need to be well written.

        PS: I also have a Sugar Without Cellulite category for books that are almost romance.

        • A light read can still be very good indeed, I’m reading one at the moment …


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