An illustrious family. A beautiful home. A shipwrecked young woman left on its doorstep.
Don't think they're going to save her.
A new novel from international bestselling author, Nikki Gemmell.
Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she's never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She's saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.
Tom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she's drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren't quite as they seem. She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum - and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.
The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell's signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.
A fascinating Australian gothic read
The Ripping Tree is a troubling but thought-provoking story, colonial Australian gothic, told in author Nikki Gemmell's characteristic style - short chapters, unflinching observation and unusual cadence.
The book opens with a family returning from a day trip to a colonial mansion, Willowbrae, renowned for it's grand crenelated architecture and manicured gardens. Their elderly grandmother, who chose not to attend the excursion for reasons of her own, then reads to them from a sheaf of handwritten pages "...a terrible tale, full of pain and anguish and trauma. It's a ghost story, a haunting, or perhaps a horror story - you be the judge." (p.2). Her narrative forms the substance of the book.
Following her beloved father's death, teenaged Thomasina "Tom" Trelora is torn away from her life in Dorset, England, by her imperious older brother, Ambrose. Against her wishes, the free-spirited Tom sets out by sea with Ambrose and his wife to the expanding colony of New South Wales, where he owns land. She's to be married off to a colonial vicar, a man she's never met. They've almost reached their destination when an all-too-common tragedy strikes - their ship, the Finbar is wrecked, and Tom - who, unusually for a woman in the early 19th century, can swim - the only survivor.
Tom is mysteriously rescued from the shallows and carried by a dark-skinned man to the nearby Willowbrae homestead, where he leaves her on the threshold, tenderly wrapped in soft bark torn from a nearby paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia). Shocked and delirious after her ordeal, she's discovered by the Craw family, who own Willowbrae and the surrounding farming land. At first she's welcomed for her convalescence, especially by Mrs. Craw, who yearns for female company and a substitute daughter, since her own died in childhood. The youngest child, a lonely little boy known as "Mouse", quickly claims her as his own and proclaims her to be a mermaid. Seeing an opportunity to escape her fate as a vicar's wife, Tom feigns amnesia as to her identity and antecedents, and is christened "Poss" by Mouse, an identity she carries for the remainder of the narrative.
As Poss's strength and natural curiosity return, she begins to explore Willowbrae and the surrounding bush with Mouse, becoming aware of jarring attitudes held by the family towards the local indigenous population. A shocking discovery in one of Mouse's favourite secret haunts leads Poss to speak up and seek answers - inevitably creating trouble for her in the conservative Craw household. As Poss stands by the convictions she's learned from her father - principles of truth, justice and fairness for all - her position becomes increasingly dangerous on the isolated property.
Nikki Gemmell explores themes of female self-determination and subjugation, historical prejudice and xenophobia, collusion and isolation in this gothic tale. Tom/Poss is a beguiling and fascinating character, her self-assurance and outspokenness an anathema to the staid and oppressive household in which she finds herself. The ordered claustrophobia of Willowbrae presents a stark contrast to the wild beauty of the surrounding landscape, though both hold many dangers for Poss as an intruder. The eponymous "ripping tree" embodies an ever-present metaphor, both for Poss's search for truth and for the covering-up of injustices by the colonisers.
I found The Ripping Tree a fascinating, if troubling, read, and Poss an engaging character. However, I was left feeling short-changed by the rather abrupt ending to the book. Realistically, I wasn't expecting all the wrongs to be admitted and atoned for - the range of injustices inflicted on the indigenous population sadly remains a issue in modern-day Australia. But I desperately wanted to know more about the resolution of Poss's story and to what extent was she able to reconcile her experiences at Willowbrae and thereafter. I also found the dialogue anachronistic at times and felt some of Poss's behaviour really stretched credulity, even allowing for her unorthodox upbringing.
I'd recommend The Ripping Tree to readers who are prepared for a grittier depiction of Australian colonial history than may be found in many of the more romanticised alternatives available on the market. The book will also be of interest to readers who seek unique female perspectives in historical fiction.