I've long thought that if I was to move out of this country, Australia would be an appealing place to go. This is based on zero actual knowledge whatsoever but because it has so long been true (I first fell in love with the country long distance at the ripe old age of nine via my long-time Aussie penpal), I have always gravitated to books set in Australia or that sought to explain that sunburned country to me. And so I have read both Australian fiction and non-fiction extensively despite the logistical difficulty and prohibitive cost of getting my hands on some of these books. So when I saw that The Fine Color of Rust, published here in the US, was set in a small, dusty, Australian country town, peopled with typically Australian characters, and being called very Australian in outlook and humor, I knew I would have to read it.
Loretta Boskovic is a single mother living in the sun-baked, hardscrabble small town of Gunapan. Still married, her good-for-nothing ex rode off into the sunset long ago leaving her with their two kids in this struggling provincial town, not a place she ever envisioned ending up. Loretta has gotten involved in the life of the community, made-up of many single women like herself by starting the Save Our School committee in an effort to forestall their tiny school's threatened closure. As she seeks to help the town, both through her efforts on behalf of the school and eventually through her uncovering of a secretively planned resort development that would not in fact bring any tourism to the town but would cut off access to the only local spring around, Loretta learns a lot about herself and about living a happy and fulfilled life.
Loretta has an active imaginary life, coming up with scenario after scenario where she is swept away from her restricted life in Gunapan by a knight in shining armor (or just a hot guy on a Harley). Her kids Melissa and Jake are stroppy and waiting for their deadbeat father to return. Her closest friend is crusty local junkman Norm who brings her a pair of goats, Terror and Panic, when Loretta is in desperate need of a lawnmower. She's a self-deprecating, self-described "old scrag" with a dry wit and a strong sense of right and wrong. There are some wonderfully humorous scenes in the book crowned by the taking of the Education Minister to the local abattoir to watch their speediest butcher deconstruct a cow where the shell-shocked politician comes away from the "amusement" rather speckled with raw meat. But there are some poignant scenes too where it is clear that the town and, in some ways, Loretta too, is really only held together with a wing and a prayer and probably some baling wire too.
O'Reilly has created an authentic and warmly entertaining story about a woman learning to bloom where she's planted. The characters are quirky and delightful and the sorts of people you'd want in your own corner as friends. The pace of the novel is consistently steady as Loretta slowly uncovers the things she needs to know to have a chance at saving Gunapan and her outrage that so many other people in this small town already knew what she was searching for is perfectly presented. The fact of her accidental activism; the demands of her family, especially once ex Tony reappears; and trying to balance a semblence of a personal life for herself always rings true. A delightful, very Australian David and Goliath story, this novel will keep the reader turning pages, chuckling wryly, and recognizing and appreciating the universality behind its themes of reliance on friendship and dedication to community.
Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book for review.