And the bush hath friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him
In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,
And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,
And at night the wond’rous glory of the everlasting stars.
- Clancy of the Overflow, Banjo Patterson
Patterson’s poem Clancy of the Overflow beautifully weaves a story of urban and rural Australia in the 1880s. It’s no wonder Jackie French is able to extract such a stunning novel from its famous stanzas.
French’s Clancy of the Overflow is the ninth instalment of her Matilda Saga, a series voiced by the ‘strong women who forged the nation’.
The book is full of ‘Easter Eggs’ for those who follow French’s work, including references to A Waltz for Matilda, To Love a Sunburnt Country and even distantly, Miss Lily’s Lovely Ladies. However, it is strong enough as a standalone for those who have yet to finish the preceding eight books.
Also entwined into the novel are references to the works of Banjo Patterson, who himself makes numerous appearances. The black stallion from The Man from Snowy River is an obvious metaphor for Indigenous Australians at the time, and shares a storyline with the character ‘Rose’:
“She laughed, and for a moment the big horse seemed to laugh with her, complicit with the natives in their refusal to be ruled by Ezekiel Clancy or Cecil Drinkwater.”
Even Australian bush poet Henry Lawson’s work makes an appearance, through the calls ‘Come, mamma! come!’ from The Water-Lily. French worked this reference in so perfectly that it filled me with both dread and admiration.
These bites of old-world Australia are as delicious, I predict, as the results of the classic recipes that mark the beginning of each chapter. They also serve up a taste of what’s to come in the writing ahead. Please write a spin-off cookbook!
The highlight of this novel for me, is how cleverly and quickly it covers Australia’s colonised history. By page 10, we have already explored more than 100 years, including convicts, early colonials and the “honourables in Australia” who neither I nor Clancy have ever thought of.
Although Clancy is the protagonist as the title implies, the story is told through multiple voices. While this technique can be tiresome, French uses it skilfully. The reader is naturally led through the story rather than forced to power through parts to return to a favourite voice.
It is also told over multiple time periods, flipping between stories 110 years apart. Like most books in this format, the reader will always have a preferred era (mine being the 1800s). However, the stories in both times are well developed and parallel each other, perhaps almost too obviously at times.
Each features a woman with a disability thriving in science, water-based accidents with young girls, and of course a ‘Clancy’ and ‘Matilda’.
Then again, the book toys with the idea of “the story that never was”, so this sense of history repeating itself may strive to provide an alternate ending to the past.
There is a futuristic element as well, with discussion of what would be our modern Australia. The characters musing over drought and change is a timely reminder of current conversation around climate change and its effects on farming and agriculture.
“I’ve been trying to ignore it, I think, and just be glad when we have rain again…I think it’s just too many humans changing too much of the world.”
The transition between periods is mostly through ‘Nancy’ telling the earlier story to novelist ‘Jed’ to instigate flashbacks – a literary technique that feels a little exhausted. I do wonder if the character Jed serves a partly autobiographical purpose and if so, it is a nice touch.
The book is so clearly well-researched and planned that the author deserves to make an appearance in it. All in all, French certainly achieved Jed’s goal;
“I want to tell the story of Australia. The real story. History books are mostly dead white men in towns and cities. I want to write books that tell the women’s history, the bush history, all the important parts that haven’t been told.”
Alison Dance is an avid reader of historical fiction, fantasy and romance. Alison’s background is media and journalism with an interest in regional, agricultural and women’s affairs. While audio books are handy for long drives and e-books are compact, you’ll find her bookshelf full. You can find her on Twitter @alisonjdance and Instagram @alisonjustdance