Tipped as ‘this summer’s Captain Corelli’s Mandolin‘ and endorsed by Kathryn The Help Stockett, The Woolgrower’s Companion has *quite* a lot to live up. So I am happy to report that, if you’re looking for a book for your summer holiday this year, this might just be it. (Don’t you love it when that happens?)
I can understand the comparisons. Set during WW2? Check. Strong, bright heroine yet to prove herself (and truly know love)? Check. Sweeping landscape setting which, let’s face it, would well on screen? Supporting cast of engaging characters? Alluring, potentially untrustworthy and yet not-unattractive Italian POW? Check, check, check.
The story opens in New South Wales in 1945, towards the end of the Second World War. Kate is at the railway station. Her husband, Jack, is away fighting. Her father, Ralph, has built up his beloved sheep station, Amiens, but it is in thrall to drought and the lack of able-bodied young men, so he welcomes the Italian POWs Kate awaits, who will work on the land (they are less welcome in the jaundiced eyes of the farm’s manager, Keith Grimes). Kate has been brought up to be a lady – but it doesn’t sit naturally, somehow, on this determined, forthright young woman.
Pretty soon it’s evident that something is not quite right in this uneasy state. Ralph’s behaviour is increasingly erratic. Daisy, their Aboriginal servant, is behaving strangely. Grimes is not happy with the arrival of his nephew, the irrepressible Harry, or the POWs. Soon enough it becomes clear that Ralph’s mind is rapidly deteriorating and that he has, in desperation, drive the farm’s finances into a parlous state. With only the help of The Woolgrower’s Companion (the manual she finds), Kate must save the farm. Or try to.
It would be easy to call this a pastoral love story with a epic sweep. It definitely has that feel. But there’s a lot more to it: a compassionate look at old age and encroaching dementia; a woman struggling to find herself during a time when women’s voices were only starting to be heard; the grand sweep of the prairie landscape (brilliantly evoked). It has real pace – if anything it winds up too quickly- and Kate (whose viewpoint filters our experience of the novel) is such a passionate, plucky heroine you’ll find yourself genuinely rooting for her. Compulsively, effortlessly readable – one in which to immerse yourself. (And, yes, it would make an excellent film…)