It is 1957, recently widowed Ilona Talivaldis and her young daughter Zidra move to the small fictional town of Jingera on the south coast of New South Wales. Ilona is a pianist and her love of music is now shared with a growing number of Jingera residents, the “Jingeroids”, as she establishes herself as a piano teacher and finds a place in her new community. For Zidra the challenge is to find her way through the minefield of playground culture in her small school with its tightly knit groups. She finds her greatest communion with Lorna Hunter, an Aboriginal girl of her own age; and with Jim Cadwaller the slightly older butcher’s son. He has a brilliant academic future ahead of him if his mother will only let him leave Jingera.
Stillwater Creek is told from the perspective of six of the districts residents, including Ilona and Zidra. The others are Cherry Bates the publican’s wife, George Cadwaller the butcher, Jim Cadwaller his son, and Peter Vincent, a local farmer. Their stories weave in and out of the narrative and all become intertwined as the book reaches a tumultuous climax.
It is a book crammed with many underlying themes. All the characters have secrets and the issues of unhappy childhood and of displacement are particularly explored.
Latvian born Ilona has survived both the horrors of a concentration camp and the trauma of losing her husband. Peter was a fighter pilot during the war and was interned in prison camps. Cherry has escaped an unhappy childhood only to find herself trapped and neglected in a loveless marriage. She has found fresh love but is crippled by inertia, frightened of the terrifying consequences if this new passion becomes public. However, she soon discovers something so horrifying that her own situation pales into insignificance.
The town is small, and the roads leading into it are precipitous and full of hairpin bends. It is full of the seen and the unseen. Houses are either hidden behind hedges or so completely open to view ‘that it was possible to see into the front room without even trying.’ Characters slink down the ‘dunny-cart lanes’ to conduct their secret business, and net curtains twitch with excitement at the comings and goings of the townspeople. As Mrs Blunkett, the postmistress, points out, ‘You only had to blink an eye in Jingera and the whole town would know.’
The town’s watery setting, with its creek (the Stillwater Creek of the title), lagoon and surf beach, helps to convey much of the action. Ilona is drawn to the swirling surf but quickly discovers its dangers. For Zidra, her explorations on the creek and lagoon with Lorna spark a chain of events that lead to the novel’s culmination. Ultimately it is the stillest water that contains the deepest menace as the things that have remained hidden rise to the surface. As Miss Neville, the school teacher, says ‘We Australians are given to understatement. You will not find us an emotional lot.’
Stillwater Creek is a great holiday novel, lending itself to relaxed reading. It is filled with entrancing metaphors and manages to convey truly horrific events while not letting go of underlying belief in the future. The sticker on the front cover suggests ‘If you enjoyed The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society you’ll love this!’ There are similarities between the two. Stillwater Creek is not an epistolary novel but it is still told from a number of perspectives and the themes of hope and redemption are common between the two. It reads as many novellas threaded into one novel and I look forward to the sequel to see how this will be sustained over time.
The author of Stillwater Creek, Alison Booth, was born in Victoria and raised in Sydney. She spent over two decades living in the UK, and returned to Australia in 2002. She is now a professor of economics at the Australian National University and is married with two daughters. This is her first novel and she is currently working on the sequel which will be set in Jingera in 1962.