Salt Creek by Lucy Treloar was published in August 2015, and shortlisted in May for the Miles Franklin award. It has been nominated for several other awards, and won the Australian Independent Booksellers’ Award for a debut novel.
Salt Creek is set in the Coorong of South Australia in the 1850’s. It follows the story of the Finches, a pioneering family who settle in this area as a last resort after the patriarch of the family has plunged them into penury and alienated them from family who could help them. There are seven children in the family, and their mother is suffering from a deep depression, which means the eldest child of the family, Hester, has to shoulder responsibilities for her siblings. The story is told by Hester, who vows to never end up like her mother, tied down to endless childbirth and limited life choices.
The land they settle is the land that belongs to the Ngarrindjeri. The Finches seem pitted against this land right from the start, or rather the land against them, as they experience failure after failure in their various ventures to make the farm a viable concern, mainly due to the incompetence, wilfulness, and fecklessness of the father. The Aboriginal people, however, have a different experience of this land, and their conflicts arise from interaction with the settlers.
This is a complex story on so many levels. It is about family, about the lack of choice for women in that time, about prejudice and double-standards, and the poisonous influences unleashed on the original inhabitants. Treloar also introduces wider historical events which bring a sense of place and time to the story. The Finch family inexorably begins to unravel; family members die, others leave, and the patriarch becomes more and more unstable. They take in an Aboriginal boy, Tully, who has been rejected by his family as he is light-skinned. He becomes part of the family, but yet not part of the family, as he is so strongly part of the land; this causes more complications as the years unfold. There is a question about his parentage which is hinted at, but never resolved.
This is a story rich in beautiful language, rich in characters, and rich in emotion which is heightened by the almost dispassionate way Hester tells the story. It is an historical novel, a literary family saga.
It is the kind of book that will provoke much discussion at book clubs.