Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 26, 2022

The Silence of Water (2022), by Sharron Booth

It was so refreshing to read the restrained prose of this debut novel after the florid style of the last novel I read!

It was also refreshing to read a novel that challenges the ‘minor crime’ mythology of convicts in the colonial era and explores the longevity of ‘see what you made me do’ in excusing domestic violence.

Shortlisted for the 2020 Hungerford Award, The Silence of Water derives from the life of Edwin Thomas Salt, a real-life convict whose death sentence for the murder of his wife MaryAnn was commuted to transportation because of his defence of provocation. Provocation has a long history of being used as a partial defence to reduce a conviction of murder to manslaughter, and indeed decades ago when I was on a jury myself, the jury was directed by the judge to consider it in a case of male-on-male violence.  Provocation as a defence was abolished in Victoria in 2005, and The Guardian tells me that Queensland remains one of the few Australian jurisdictions to retain it.  (The ACT and Northern Territory have restricted its use but not abolished it entirely.) In Booth’s novel, the commuted sentence offers Salt an opportunity for a fresh start in the Antipodes…

The novel, which has a somewhat disjointed and confusing structure, begins in 1906 with Salt’s teenage descendant Fan (Frances) Johnson who knows nothing about him, much less his criminal history.  Living in Adelaide with her parents and younger siblings, she is profoundly upset by the news that her mother Agnes, has agreed to return the family to Fremantle to take care of her father Edwin.  His third wife Annie has had enough of his drinking and thrown him out, but at eighty, he’s now too frail to support himself.  Agnes against her better judgement, gives in to the emotional blackmail about duty to ‘family’.

Moving backwards and forwards in time and place, Edwin’s backstory in a respectable tailoring family in mid 19th century Britain is gradually revealed to the reader, and partially also to Fan who succumbs to curiosity about the secrets of her family.  Her mother had always maintained that the South Australian side of the family was all they had and all they needed, but Fan is a feisty girl and defiantly bonds with her ‘new’ grandfather.  Through her conversations with him she amasses tantalising information from snippets he lets fall.  Edwin is careful to hide his dark past with half-truths, but is no match for her snooping amongst his things.

Meticulously researched, the novel depicts the fragility of life in this era, especially for women.  Children don’t always survive, and soon after giving birth, Salt’s second wife Cath dies of heat exhaustion while Edwin is out drinking.

The curtains were pulled across the window.

‘Too much sun.’ Mrs Molloy [the midwife] dabbed a wet cloth on Mam’s face.  ‘We found her down the yard, asleep near the vegetable patch.’

‘For the love of God, Cath, wake up.’ Da laid another wet cloth on Mam’s hair.

Agnes squeezed Mam’s hand, but Mam didn’t squeeze back.  Instead she groaned.  Her head lolled over the side of the bed and she vomited.

‘We’ve got to get her cooled down.’ Mrs Molloy grabbed a bucket.  ‘Where’s the tub?’

‘She can hardly sit up in it, it’s too small,’ Da said.

‘The river, then.’  (p.56)

Observant readers will note that there’s no money to buy a decent-sized tub, but plenty of money for drinking.

When Da comes back alone with Mam and places her on the bed, his face is all shadows and hollows and there was a blackness in his eyes.  Agnes didn’t know a name for a look like that. 

Mam?’ Agnes spoke louder. Walter woke up and began to tremble.  Da shook his head.  In the wooden cot, Baby Cath wailed.  Agnes waited for Da to do something.

Da buckled in the middle. He lay down next to Mam and lifted her arm over him.  The baby’s crying grew harsher and deeper and louder until Agnes realised this new noise was coming out of Da. (p.57)

Book-groups will find it interesting to discuss how differing points-of-view shift the reader’s judgements.  The excerpt above evokes a sympathetic view of a bereaved Edwin without absolving him of responsibility for her death.  His fragmented memories of MaryAnn don’t let the reader forget the manner of her death either, but his descendants in the novel remain ignorant of it, or are complicit in suppressing knowledge about it.  Later, young Agnes makes harsher judgements about Edwin when arrangements are made for Baby Cath’s care; as an adult she agrees to care for him only out of a sense of duty, not affection.  Fan is shocked by the discovery of his crime and its repercussions on her fractured family, and at last tears are shed for the victim who had been forgotten for so long.

You can listen to Sharron Booth in conversation about the book with Claire Miller from Fremantle Press, here.

The Silence of Water is due for release in May 2022.

Did you know that there is free delivery anywhere in Australia if you buy two or more books from the not-for-profit Fremantle Press?  You could pre-order The Silence of Water and Portland Jones’ new novel Only Birds Above, (see my recent review) freight free!

Author: Sharron Booth
Title: The Silence of Water
Publisher: Fremantle Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781760991340, pbk., 232 pages
Review copy courtesy of Fremantle Press.



  1. Oooh, this sounds so interesting! Thanks, Lisa! I’ve just ordered it with a view to putting it on the reading list for my U3A Australian Literature class next year. I don’t know of any other books that deal with issues quite like these, so I’m looking forward to reading it.


    • That sounds good. Not too long either which is good for bookgroups.


  2. This does sound good for a reading group. Please don’t encourage the three books with free postage!!! I’m swimming in books I’m already trying to get to. I need no more encourage. Hahaha😆😆😆


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