COLDWATER by Mardi McConnochie


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Australian playwright McConnochie nods to the Brontës while investigating her country's convict past—in a melodramatic and muddled debut that chronicles the dangers threatening three literary daughters and their martinet father on an island penal colony.

Set in the late 1840s, the story proceeds via brief first-person accounts by Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and their father. The family once lived on a farm in the outback called Haworth, but when his only son, 13-year-old Branwell, died from thirst while exploring the bush, the grieving Captain Wolf became governor of a prison on Coldwater Island. The captain, whose qualifications for the job seem more related to plot exigencies than specific abilities, dreams of reforming prisoners and often selects a likely candidate for special treatment. But he also has a dark side, as his adoring daughters eventually learn. The tale begins just after Captain Wolf has been badly wounded in a prison uprising. Charlotte, worried about their future if he dies, suggests to her sisters that they write novels. Anne and Emily share their ideas, but Charlotte, who at 31 fears she will never marry, works on her own. Their father recovers and, to Charlotte’s alarm, takes as his valet a recently arrived Irish revolutionary prisoner, the handsome but menacing Finn O’ Connell. Naturally, the job requires Finn to spend time in the house, and sensitive, romantic Emily falls in love with him. Their relationship is discovered, Finn disappears, and the incensed Captain burns his daughters’ manuscripts. As his behavior becomes increasingly irrational and cruel, the sisters plan to leave the island: Anne with a mainland fisherman she met on the shore; Emily with Finn, when he’s rescued from solitary confinement in a planned rebellion; and Charlotte on the next supply ship. Happy endings are rare on penal colonies, however, so few survive the ensuing violence.

Conceptually intriguing but narratively uncompelling. Wuthering Heights it’s not.

Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2001
ISBN: 0-385-50260-5
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Doubleday
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2001