Long Bay by Eleanor Limprecht

Long Bay immediately summons the spectre of imprisonment. Long Bay Gaol is to Sydney as Pentridge is to Melbourne and the shadow of the gaol hangs over the recreation of Rebecca Sinclair’s life. Beginning with a letter stating, ‘an inmate of the reformatory … is being transferred to your hospital for the purpose of being confined’, Long Bay slowly develops as a narrative about the multitude of ways in which Rebecca is confined.

Immediately after establishing Rebecca’s dire situation, as she waits to give birth shackled to a bed, Limprecht turns back to the beginning of Rebecca’s story – one of growing up in the working class slums of Paddington at the turn of the twentieth century. The detailed recreation of Sydney at the time is immersive and impressive and the streets of the inner city are rendered full of life. This vibrancy turns increasingly oppressive as it is contrasted with the confinement of Rebecca to small dark rooms shared with her sisters and mother; sewing continuously in order not to starve and constantly watching other opportunities slip away.

In Rebecca we are presented with an unsentimental portrait of a girl growing up cognisant all the time of the limits of her world, of the confinement of poverty and gender. She is smart but stuck, aware and resentful, self-serving and naïve. She is an ordinary young woman.

Limprecht has taken the historical sources regarding the real Rebecca Sinclair’s life, court records and prison correspondence, and created a fully realised young woman and her vivid and relatable life. When Long Bay finally emerges from the shadows its role is as unexpected as Rebecca’s own story.

Marie Matteson is a bookseller at Readings Carlton.