It’s 1854, and a fragile 16-year-old girl is forced to leave England for Australia—an arduous voyage she is unlikely to survive.
Sarah Garnett, homesick, beset by nightmares and waking visions of the lover she longs for, is confined below decks with other unmarried women. Their life aboard the half-rotten ship is a delicately drawn parody of Victorian gentility: they fashion paper roses; promenade occasionally under the watchful eye of their stern chaperone; confide in each other, spy on each other, fight, and wonder about the unknown new world they sail toward. Madness is commonplace: the matron who guards what remains of their virtue has abandoned her own sons in New South Wales to pursue ghosts: her husband and baby died at sea and she can no longer live on land. A sailor who dared to cook and eat an albatross has gone completely insane, rolling in treacle and feathers and howling in misery. Disease is a constant threat, and an outbreak of typhus carries off more than one hapless victim. One of their number gives birth in secret to an illegitimate daughter, then dies within hours. The grieving young women open her trunk in search of mementos, and find only a moldering wedding dress. Manners and minds dissolve in the suffocating heat of the tropical latitudes, but Sarah clings to sanity by writing letter after letter to her parents, remembering her childhood idylls in the English countryside with her brother and sister—and with Richard, the cousin she was not permitted to marry. Imagining her pregnancy as a fish she swallowed that now trembles inside her, Sarah finally succumbs to a feverish madness of her own, lost in aqueous hallucinations. The irony of this is not lost on her: Mrs. Garnett, her mother, feared any contact with water, refusing even to drink it, but willingly set her daughter adrift on an ocean that the girl would cross but once.
An elegant, evocative debut, by a 26-year-old Australian storywriter.