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The story portrayed in The River House by Janita Cunnington begins in the late 1940’s, and is told from the perspective of the middle child in a family of three children.
Laurie is four years of age at the beginning of the story, and in her fifties at the conclusion of the book. The story centres on a holiday shack used by the family, who live in Brisbane and travel north to the River House every summer of Laurie’s childhood. A tragic accident occurs, and the family takes a break away from the house to recover from the event. The pull of the River House is strong, however, and it remains in the family as a much loved holiday destination.
The author describes how Laurie comes to understand that her older brother, Tony, is an illegitimate child born before her parents met. Tony’s father died during the war without knowing about his son. Tony and his stepfather Doug have a tense relationship, which is made even more stressful by the family’s circumstances which bring blame and feelings of guilt into play. Tony has an idealised version of his father lodged firmly in his head, and there comes a point in time where this concept is challenged and Doug lets Tony know what it was really like fighting a war with his mates on the Kokoda Trail.
Laurie’s first romance ends badly when her boyfriend switches his affections to another young lady. She meets her future husband a number of times before she really takes any notice of him, but they finally get together and marry. Tony also marries, and for a wedding gift, he is given the River House, and the extended family once again enjoy holidays together with the next generation of young folk at their feet.
Tony has high ideals and spends much of his time supporting and organising protests while his wife works to support the family. He accumulates debt, and as a way out, takes a developer to look at the River House, which is set on a large parcel of riverfront land. Tony imagines that he will receive an offer of two million dollars from the developer, but the offer is far short of this. A family deal is worked out, with Laurie and her younger sister Miranda becoming part owners of the property.
There are concerns for Miranda when she heads off for the River House without her supply of medication, and Laurie follows after her to take care of her. This coincides with an extreme weather event which places the River House at risk. During the drive up the highway, Laurie reflects on her life – the quality of her marriage, the outcomes of her children. I leave you with this quote from the novel – ‘Sadness accrues, in the way the happiness doesn’t’.
What I found disconcerting about the book was the fictional place names used in the book, which were interspersed with real place names. The location of the fictional Broody River is placed somewhere near Nambour on the Sunshine Coast of Queensland, how I wish the author had just named a real river! She is describing the geography of the Noosa River, and I felt disconnected from the story every time I read the words ‘Broody River’ because I could recognise it as being the Noosa River. I guess that this problem of mine does indicate that the author can paint a picture in words for her readers, many of whom will not share my familiarity with this area and can just relax and enjoy the story.
At the conclusion of the book, there are some questions for a reading group to ponder. The author also compiled a playlist of music that is available on Spotify for download, with the suggestion that this would make a good background for reading or book club discussion. I think this is a nice idea, and wish that it had been placed at the front of the book instead of at the back, where I discovered it too late.
The River House, by Janita Cunnington, is available from Dymocks
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