Reading Readit - Lush, strange, mystery withholds its truth until the end

I love historical fiction! I’m one of those people who likes history wrapped in a good story and freely admit that much of my historical knowledge is gleaned from within the pages of novels such as Palace of Tears by Julian Leatherdale. The novel being set in the magnificent Blue Mountains of New South Wales only added to its promise.

The Palace Hotel of the book is based on the Hydro Majestic Hotel and Spa in Katoomba. The author clearly knows this building well and uses it as a character. I so enjoyed walking through the Palace and seeing in my mind the original I know. I could share the amazement of the characters in their surroundings because I remember being absolutely agape the first time I saw both the interior and exterior of the building. Although, in my time, the Hydro Majestic was a little “lady in reduced circumstances” it was clear her history was grand. The cottage to one side of the building, which features so strongly in the story, has a parallel in the buildings on the property.

Many of the people who visited the Palace/Hydro Majestic in its heyday are also featured in the novel, Dame Nellie Melba, Clara Butt and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle being the best known. These people are incorporated into the novel seamlessly with no hint of “Star spotting”.

The time, and place, of the novel is so strongly established, I had to remind myself the people were fictional characters, not the people who built, owned and/or operated the Hydro Majestic. Julian cheekily uses similarities in name to great advantage, such as the fictional Meadow Springs for the real Medlow Bath, and Monika Fox for the name of the children’s book writer in the novel.

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Palace of Tears is huge in scale; it covers over 100 years and three generations of the Fox family. During renovations of the Palace, historian Luke Evans is preparing a history of the grand building and the people who lived, worked and played there. Lisa is slowly losing her mother to the scourge of Alzheimer’s, but when Monika blurts out that Angie “broke Adam Fox’s heart”, Lisa longs to learn more about her family before their history is irrevocably locked inside her mother’s mind. Through shifts in time, we learn the Fox history through the eyes and voices of  the women who love, and are loved by Adam Fox, Adeline, Laura, Monika, Freya and Angie. Each of these women is important in different ways; individually and as a group, they are wonderful. The author draws an excellent word portrait of each one and of their place in Adam’s life.

One piece of history which wasn’t pleasant to read was the treatment of naturalised Australians, who happened to be of German birth, or family heritage, during World War 1. I knew of internment camps for “enemy aliens” but I did not know of their fate after the war. The inclusion of this history may not reflect the way Australians like to see ourselves, but it adds depth to the story. We may not like it hearing it, but it did happen and sometimes we need reminding that there were some inglorious moments our history.

There are multiple twists in this family history, and the lush, strange, mystery persists until the end. The final denouement isn’t broadcast to the reader – as many scenarios as I imagined, I was not close!

Author Julian Leatherdale’s first love was theatre. On graduation, he wrote lyrics for four satirical cabarets and a two-act musical. He discovered a passion for popular history as a staff writer, researcher and photo editor for Time-Life’s Australians At War series. He later researched and co-wrote two Film Australia-ABC documentaries Return to Sandakan and The Forgotten Force and was an image researcher at the State Library of New South Wales. He was the public relations manager for a hotel school in the Blue Mountains, where he lives with his wife and two children. He uses these experiences to great advantage in writing Palace of Tears.

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I recommend this novel to anyone looking for a good read with substance. Thank you to Allen and Unwin for my ARC. A first novel by a new writer and what a novel it is!

Palace of Tears, by Julian Leatherdale, is available for purchase from Dymocks