In Australia in the 1840s, the lives of two very different women intersect. Ellis MacRorie is shipped to Victoria from her Scottish homeland by her bankrupt father; Leerpeen Weelan, her Aboriginal servant known as Louisa, has lost her tribe in a bloody act of violence. Forced to marry a man she does not love, and isolated from all society, Ellis is resigned to a solitary life on the remote Western District homestead of Strathcarron. After the tragic death of two babies, she is ready is give up altogether. Although Louisa has endured dispossession and the loss of her own family, she becomes a steadfast source of guidance, friendship and strength for Ellis. When the American Romantic landscape painter, sketcher and collector Sanford P. Hart comes to stay at Strathcarron, the two women are transformed forever - in both enriching and devastating measures. One hundred and fifty years later, ambitious assistant curator Cornelia, researching an exhibition on S. P. Hart for the National Gallery of Victoria, makes a remarkable discovery that has the potential to rewrite history. However, it is not Hart’s paintings that offer a glimpse into the untold events of nineteenth-century rural Australia, but rather something very rare…The Longing is a novel about loss, finding home and the significance of history - what is recorded and what is left unknown.
by Julia Jackson, Readings Carlton
The indomitable Martin Shaw handed me this book saying, ‘You should review this. It’s right up your alley.’ With this recommendation, he was spot on. Those in art historical and gallery/museum circles will surely recognise the name. Now based in Sydney, Candice Bruce is a well-respected art historian and curator, specialising in nineteenth century Australian Art. She is particularly well known in my other workplace (the NGV) as an expert on Eugene von Guerard.
As a first novel, The Longing is an impressive foray into literary fiction. Bruce deftly weaves concurrent narratives crossing time, culture and history around the central theme of loss. Isolated and struggling in her situation as housewife to a wealthy pastoralist she does not love, Ellis MacRorie is sent a young Gundtjimara woman, Leerpeen Weelan, as a housemaid. Leerpeen, witness to unspeakable acts of violence from colonialists, grapples with the loss of her family, tribal group and place. Ellis and Leerpeen, or Louisa as she is known throughout the book, gradually bond, and give strength to one another over their common grief. Both women stand out with strong writing from Bruce. The arrival of the American landscape painter Sandford P. Hart to the rural Victorian estate offers both women a distraction from their ennui, with the outcomes of their interactions with Hart leaving legacies which are separately devastating and exciting. More than a century later, it is NGV curatorial assistant Cornelia who brings one of these to light!
If you’re an aficionado of Australian art history or a keen gallery goer, or just simply on the lookout for a decent read with good writing and plot, then this is the book for you. I’m sure we’ll be reading more by Candice Bruce in the near future.
Julia Jackson is from Readings Carlton
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