Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Book Review: The Heaven I Swallowed by Rachel Hennessy

In postwar Sydney, Grace Smith takes Mary, a young Aboriginal girl, into her home. She believes she will be able to save the child by giving her all the benefits of white society. But Mary's arrival has unexpected consequences as Grace's past comes back to haunt, and condemn her.

I read Rachel Hennessy's historical novel The Heaven I Swallowed as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Set in Sydney after the Second World War, this is Grace's story - a devout Catholic woman who sees it as her charitable duty to help Aboriginal girl Mary release the 'shackles' of her race. As it turns out, Grace and her community do more to shackle Mary than the white person's perception of a so-called 'savage' Aboriginal life ever could.

Grace is a complex character. I felt for her because of her own unhappy childhood, and I could easily see that she was nothing more than a product of her time. The Stolen Generations were taken from their homes under the misguided belief that it was the best thing for them. The way in which Grace refers to herself as saving Mary is a perfect illustration of what most white people must have felt at this time.

While this novel is part commentary on the Stolen Generations, it is more about Grace herself. I found this to be an interesting way of examining this sad time in Australian history. To tell the story from the perspective of the woman who 'adopted' the child, Hennessy was able to show the reader a different side to the events. Grace longs for a child to replace the one she miscarried. And as she is alone now her husband Fred hasn't returned from the war, she is also searching for purpose and a way to fill the void in her life. But there is more to Grace than simple lonliness. She also acts out of a desire to appear holy.

Grace craves affection and connection, but does not understand how to go about receiving them. Her dedication to the church and to God turns out to be a poor substitute for the love she really longs for. It's a sad story to read because Grace's desperate longing and rigid way of living is both devastating and infuriating all at once. I found myself liking Grace one moment and disliking her the next. Hennessy has created a flawed, yet relatable, character and for that very reason I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Heaven I Swallowed


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