Source- Review copy
Publisher- Simon & Schuster
Publication date- 1st July 2012
Synopsis- A Sweeping Saga. An Unlikely Love. Isabel de Rolland, an English aristocrat, is sent to the penal Colony of New South Wales in 1833 to honour an arranged marriage. Wealthy ex-convict Garnet Gamble has paid her family’s debts in exchange for the respectablility that her lineage will give his son Marmaduke whose ‘convict stain’ excludes him from Society. Isabel and Marmaduke detest each other on sight. She sees him as a Colonial barbarian. He has no intentin of relinquishing his bachelor freedom and his mistresses. But in the Gamble mansion the dark secrets of the past and the spectre of madness are destined to haunt them-forcing them into a strange alliance.
Review- Australian author Johanna Nicholls has contributed another solid read in the historical fiction genre with Ghost Gum Valley, set in early Australia. After reading her debut novel Ironbark (read my review), I couldn’t wait to pick up another Nicholls’ novel and immerse myself in Australia’s convict era.
Isabel de Rolland, a young English woman longs to escape her cousin Silas, but has been kept under lock and key by her guardian Godfrey for the past three years. Her sleepwalking escapade resulted in a pregnancy and Isabel cannot recall the conception. Isabel holds a strong belief that she is cursed; carrying the genes of her witch mother and convinced by her cousin she is evil. Silas is a creepy character who tends to haunt Isabel and I sensed immediately the connection between him and Isabel’s repressed trauma.
When she is sold by her uncle Godfrey to an emancipist’s son in New South Wales to clear the de Rolland family of all outstanding debts, Isabel succumbs to this decision with the hope of providing financial stability and keeping her secret safe.
The emancipist, Garnet Gamble has arranged the marriage of his bachelor son, Marmaduke. An engagement that has been in the works for two years without the groom having any clue. Marmaduke is nearing the age of 25 and will soon be free of his father’s manipulation and will claim his mother’s inheritance of Mingaletta- the property he dreams of owning and running independently. But Garnet always has something up his sleeve and he is determined for a Gamble heir to inherit all his fortune, but first Marmaduke must father a child. Isabel is of a noble bloodline that will not only provide Marmaduke with a respectable heir but will also provide him with the status in the community that Garnet has always desired for his son.
Neither Marmaduke or Isabel wish to abide by the marriage contract and both try to outwit each other to call off the engagement- only to discover that they can both gain what they desire through this arranged marriage.
Marmaduke’s first impression of Isabel isn’t of the gentle, young woman he expected rather his first meeting with Isabel is in a cell, where she is dressed as a boy and sporting a swollen, bruised eye. She has a directness and attitude that also surprises him. Isabel instantly detests Marmaduke, as she does any man, which suits Marmaduke fine as he has no intention of ceasing his womanising behaviour. However, there’s a softer, protective side to Marmaduke that intrigues her and for the first time in her life she begins to trust a man, one who will not abuse her trust. Despite her intense fear and hatred of all men, he seems to get under her skin.
So the marriage goes ahead, under the conditions that Marmaduke continues his bachelor ways and gets Mingaletta while Isabel does not want to be touched by any man though wants financial stability Their marriage will solve all their problems. Perhaps not! Neither expected they would fall in love.
Of course in a Nicholl’s novel, there’s no quick HEA, she tends to put her characters through many obstacles before they find happiness. Marmaduke and Isabel are such absorbing characters with many complexities. At first I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to relate to Marmaduke, but he soon grew on me, particularly because his viewpoint often dominated the novel and the author’s skilful characterisation allowed me access to his vulnerabilities and strengths. She even managed to evoke my empathy for the volatile Garnet Gamble as his own turmoil is revealed.
Nicholls’ characterisation is impeccable, she presents characters who are strong, determined and courageous but also vulnerable, flawed and in need of protection. The plot is multilayered and embodied with suspense and many subplots that weave together to an intense climax. I highly recommend both of Nicholls’ historical fiction novels for those who enjoy a meaty read and an admirable hero and heroine.
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About the author: Johanna Nicholls is a former magazine feature writer and fashion editor. Her writing credits include short stories in Woman’s Day, radio plays and a stage play. Johanna has worked in television production for Channel 7 as a researcher/writer and for 23 years she was head Script Editor for ABC TV’s Drama Department and worked on the development of many memorable mini series including Sweet and Sour, Love is a Four Letter Word and Changi. Ironbark is her first novel and resulted from her fascination with the unique qualities of Australian Colonial history, our landscape and the emergence of the Australian identity. Johanna lives in Balmain, Sydney.
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This book was read as part of the AWW2012 challenge: