Ann Whitehead- Waratah House
Source- Review copy/ netgalley
Publisher- Penguin Australia
Publication date- 2nd July 2012
Synopsis- In the tradition of Downtown Abbey comes a vivid story of life in the servant’s quarters.
Waratah House, a beautiful mansion in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, is the only home Marina has ever known. Orphaned at a young age, Marina finds a new family in the colourful characters that occupy the bustling servants’ quarters of this stately house.
But not every resident of Waratah House has Marina’s best interests at heart and she finds herself forced into exile. Years later, Marina’s daughter Emily discovers the past has a way of repeating itself. She must fight for her chance at happiness – a chance that some will do anything to prevent . . .
Beautifully written with wonderful period detail, Waratah House takes you into the lives of an unforgettable cast of characters who will touch your heart.
Review- Set in early Australia, Waratah House is an appealing historical story of the intergenerational issues and dramas arising in the servant’s quarter of this regal home.
As a young child, Marina had loving parents who set sail to Australia to start a new life, but illness spreads throughout the ship leaving her orphaned and outcasted. The superstitious passengers fear Marina, the first to fall ill on the voyage, brought the sickness and therefore evil, she was branded with a curse. Though Marina does have an intuitive disposition, she can sense things about people and situations but she does begin to doubt her worth with these vicious allegations. A young man, James takes pity on her following the death of his son on the ship; he adopts her much to the despair of his wife, Sarah. She too was drawn into this invented curse, blaming Marina for her son’s death; she takes an instant disliking to her. This dislike evolves into an intense hatred as Marina becomes the symbol for all the injustices in Sarah’s life and intensifies further when her husband is killed in an accident with a horse.
Sarah and Marina, join the servant ranks at Waratah House, in the southern highlands where Marina remains under Sarah’s punitive care. Despite the many forms of abuse Marina is subjected to by Sarah’s abhorrence, Marina’s gentle disposition attracts many friends and admirers at Waratah House, including the head cook, Cookie who regards Marina like a daughter. Marina is wonderful with the young children and befriends the young Edward who has a status in society that requires their friendship remains hidden. As they move into their mid-teens their friendship advances into a love affair that Sarah soon learns of. Sarah’s interference has Marina exiled from Waratah House as a homeless pregnant teen.
Just before the halfway-mark in the book, the protagonist switches to that of Emily, Marina’s daughter who is brought up as Cookie’s daughter at Waratah House. I was quite surprised by this decision as I had firmly aligned myself with Marina and hoped to see her story through. It was a little disconcerting to see Emily grow up in similar circumstances to her mother and again become the target of Sarah’s jealous tendencies and fantasies. When a series of tragedies leaves Emily orphaned and grieving the young man, Tim who she planned to marry. Sarah outcasts her again and brands her with the curse of death and it’s not long before Emily begins to believe this. Her time at Waratah House is further complicated by Sarah’s children Esther and David. Ester, much like her mother is jealous and spiteful towards Emily, despite their early close friendship and David, on the other hand is in love with her but unable to contain his feelings causes a rift in their friendship too.
Sarah was a very difficult character, although her early experiences of abuse and neglect were examined in the story she has little insight into the effects of these on her capacity to connect with others as evident in the demise of her second marriage and the tense relationship with her colleagues and children. There were times when I really questioned Sarah’s sanity which was in marked contrast to Marina and Emily’s soft-natured, naïve temperaments. I a little disappointed that Sarah didn’t really grow as a character, she continued to worsen and her issues with Marina and Emily were unresolved by the ending.
I enjoyed Emily’s continuation of Marina’s role at Waratah House but my interest did wane slightly when the protagonist was substituted and I couldn’t help but wonder whether there was another way it could have been structured- either Marina’s story being cut back to a smaller portion of the story or for Marina’s story to be told through Emily/ Cookie’s story to make it more comfortable for the reader to connect with them both instead of the first half of the book being a different story to the second half.
Overall, Waratah House is an enjoyable read about the lower-class residents of early Australia and I liked the communal and intimate feel of the home and all of the staff who come and go. I could connect with this place as home for both Marina and Emily despite some of the atrocities they experienced in their time there.
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About the author: Ann Whitehead is the author of the bestselling Australia Street, The House Across the Road and another novel, Blackwattle Road, written under the name of Ann Charlton.
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This book was read as part of the AWW2012 challenge: