Book Review: Sharron Booth’s debut The Silence of Water brings WA’s convict story to life

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In 1906, Frances (Fan) Johnson moved from Adelaide to Fremantle with her family so that her mother, Agnes, could care for her estranged father. Edwin Salt has been chased away by his wife, Annie, and everyone thinks he doesn’t have much time to live. Although Agnes is estranged from her capricious and secretive father, she feels compelled to take him into boarding school.

There are more opportunities for Fan’s father to work on the port of Fremantle anyway; and so the family of five moves across the country and becomes a family of six. At first, Fan is angry that her life has been uprooted for the sake of a family member she has never heard of before. But, soon, she is fascinated by her grandfather and the mysteries that seem to surround him, dark as they are.

by Sharron Booth first novel, The silence of the water is a braided cord from a historical novel, weaving together the stories of Fan, Agnes and Edwin to expose the legacy of a terrible secret about an Australian family. The novel has been selected for the 2020 TAG Hungerford Award administered by Fremantle Pressand taken up by them for publication accordingly.

Fan’s story follows the young girl as she bonds with her grandfather and begins to unravel the secrets that have haunted him for half a century. The story of Agnes shows the central part of Edwin’s life, his creation of a second family in Fremantle in the late 1800s and their gradual estrangement after the death of his wife Cath. Finally, the third story is that of Edwin himself and begins in Lichfield in 1840. Edwin, the son of a tailor, is one of five children, although he is closest to his sister Eliza.

The reader follows Edwin as he escapes the family business to make his fortune as an excise man. It was during a work trip that he met and fell in love with Mary Ann, his first wife. This part of his life sets in motion the great secret of the novel, and it is this part of the story that Fan begins to uncover in the living room of an Ellen Street house half a century later.

We feel throughout this novel a great schism; Edwin’s life before the crime that saw him transported and Edwin and his family’s life after almost feel like two different stories. Both settings are both rich and well documented, using all five senses to create incredibly accurate facsimiles.

Booth captures the Australian summer heat and the relief that comes with being in the water with ease. Rivers, harbors and water in general are almost a central character in the novel, and there is a common affinity with water that is shared by the women in the book across generations.

One of the most poignant moments in the book is when Fan, when told that she loves swimming like her mother, protests that she never sees her mother swim. We as readers know why Agnes stopped going in the water; there is a delightful dramatic irony here, as the three viewpoints allow this complicated family history to be viewed from multiple angles.

One of the great successes of this novel lies in the creation of the character of Edwin Salt. Edwin has done some truly horrible and violent things, and yet he still believes himself to be a good man and a victim of circumstances. Her protests, even to her own conscience, sound remarkably like echoes of “see what she made me do.” I can only imagine the challenge that must have come with getting into this character’s head and trying to write him sympathetically, because it would have been easy to caricature him. Still, Booth prevails. Edwin is both the transported criminal, the angry drunk father and the fascinating grandfather in the front room telling stories to his granddaughter.

If you’re a fan of historical fiction by Amanda Curtin, Meg Keneally or David Whish-Wilson, you might like Sharron Booth’s. The silence of the water – I know I did!

The silence of the waterWe who hunt the hollow

FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

The silence of the water by Sharron Booth is now available from Fremantle Press. Pick up a copy of Booktopia HERE.


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