REVIEWED BY TRICIA GILBEY
Alison Booth (F A Thorpe: 2020)
The Philosopher’s Daughters, set in 1890s London and Australia, has contemporary resonance with its exploration of racial tensions and the fight for true equality for women. I made an immediate personal connection with this novel too because Alison Booth demonstrates so well the complex effects of separation on two sisters when one emigrates to another continent, as my own sister did.
The sisters are Sarah and Harriet, daughters of the moral philosopher and reformer, James Cameron. Sarah falls in love and goes to explore Australia with her new husband. Harriet is a dutiful daughter who helps her father and paints in her spare time. She’s very involved in her father’s campaigns for social justice, but when he suddenly dies, she’s cut adrift from everything she’s known. Impulsively, she boards a ship to join Sarah in the Northern Territories on a cattle station.
In this fledgling outback society the sisters come up against less enlightened people who talk of the ‘aboriginal problem’. Harriet, at first, feels only the ‘emptiness, like a presence hemming you in’, but she soon realises ‘that the emptiness surrounding her was not emptiness at all but was peopled with a rich and beautiful mythology and history.’ This book is full of references to light, both the harsh sunlight which means Harriet can’t paint at all to start with, and the slanted light which falls through the leaves of the eucalypts and throws shadows. Harriet has to learn to see in a new way so she can paint again, and this helps her through her grief and towards a new life and a new love.
As the philosopher’s daughters free themselves of the blinkers of ‘civilisation’, they each respond in different ways to the challenges of the vibrant but unforgiving outback and the other people who live there.
The Philosopher’s Daughters is‘a work of fiction embedded in historical fact’, and Alison Booth’s note at the end indicates her meticulous research, although her story wears that research lightly. By the end I was left musing on love, the value of art, and how important it is to stand up for your beliefs. This is a novel which effortlessly carried me nine thousand miles and more than a century away to a world, which, although very different, made me reflect on our own.