Out of Australia’s rough-and-tumble opal country, London-dwelling Rice’s debut extracts a sweet little nougat—or, it might be said, a chunk of shameless melodrama.
Ashmol Williamson’s opal-mining father drinks too much; his pretty mother yearns for the beauties of England (and the upper-class marriage prospect) that she left behind in following her husband to Australia (with his distant dream of wealth); and Ashmol’s sister Kellyanne has—well, she has two silent and invisible friends, a girl named Dingan and a boy named Pobby. The toughly boyish Ashmol ridicules Kellyanne’s friends, but his quick-witted sister is ever ready at their defense—when Ashmol punches the empty air where Dingan is supposed to “be” and asks why he gets no punches back, Kellyanne retorts, “Cos Dingan is a pacifist, stupid.” The same is true with the children’s father, whose skepticism borders on the cruel—until, that is, his wife castigates him fiercely (“You haven’t found any opal in two years. Not a glimpse of it. And opal’s real enough for you”), humiliating him so badly that he makes amends in any way he can, even including the offer to take Pobby and Dingan with him for a working day at his claim. Which he does, the only trouble being that he forgets them there. Kellyanne’s distraction at the loss of her friends sends her into a serious decline—physical? psychological?—and Ashmol into action (“And then I figured out something else. I didn’t like to admit it, but it seemed to me the only way to make Kellyanne better would be to find Pobby and Dingan”). Ashmol’s activities and the tale’s unwindings from there on are comprised of approximately equal parts of, let us say, Dickens, Twain—and Disney.
Some will grumble, feeling manipulated, while many, many more will shed a quiet tear or two.