By the Currawong’s Call, by Welton B. Marsland
Publisher: Escape Publishing
Release Date: November 20, 2017
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
A small town, a new arrival, and a love that is as undeniable as it is unlawful…
Victoria, Australia, 1891
Anglican priest Matthew Ottenshaw receives his first posting in tiny Dinbratten, two days’ ride from his Melbourne home. Determined to honour his calling as best he can, he throws himself into the footy mad, two-pub town, navigating the dusty streets, learning the gossip, and striking up a friendship with Jonah Parks, the resident police sergeant and local bona fide hero.
A police officer and a priest often find themselves needed at the same place, and Jonah and Matthew’s friendship deepens quickly, as they set about their business of protecting the bodies and souls of Dinbratten’s residents. When a bushfire threatens the town, and Matthew’s inexperience with fire endangers the church buildings, Jonah comes to the rescue, and a reckless kiss in the midst of the chaos takes their friendship to forbidden.
Neither Matthew nor Jonah can go back to the way things were before, but continuing their relationship puts everything at risk: their jobs, their friends, even their lives. In the outback town of Dinbratten where everyone knows everything about everyone else, how can they ever expect to keep a secret this explosive?
In the Closet
Content Warning for: homophobia
Okay, so: disclosure. This might actually by a 4 star book, but the formatting of my review copy was so messed up that reading parts of this book became a slog to read. So, I think the story is totally worth reading, and the execution of it will probably be a lot smoother with a correctly formatted copy. Since I know that ARCs sometimes have formatting issues, I don’t want to ding the book for something out of its control, but in this case the formatting compromised readability enough that it was impossible to ignore.
That aside, though, I really enjoyed the premise and execution of this story. Matt and Jonah are queer men in the Australian Outback, at a time when this is illegal. They have to hide their relationship, and the irony that they are both supposed to be the pillars of the law in this town is very deliberately used by Marsland to make her point about the fact that just because something is illegal, doesn’t make it immoral. Since Jonah is a cop, and Matt is a priest, we get this lesson from the angle of both government and religion. At times, though, this ongoing conversation between Matt and Jonah felt a little bit like preaching to the choir (and the epilogue, in particular, felt like an anvil falling on me).
The small town setting worked really well, and the book covers a longer period of time, so that we really get a sense of Dinbratten and its people. In particular, there are multiple instances of women dodging strictures of the law in order to support themselves – one woman owns a pub, for instance, but has it licensed under the name of her non-existent husband so that she can operate it on her own terms. These were heartening background examples to see, in terms of women also having their own agency and not having the book focus exclusively on the plight of our male heroes. It’s refreshing to get a historical romance that isn’t set in America/Europe, and doesn’t automatically relegate women to home-making because of a narrow notion of “historical accuracy.” The story doesn’t ignore the colonial issues of Australia, either, and there are discussions around racism towards Aboriginal Australians and also non-white immigrants.
One thing that bothered me quite a bit, however, is that the catalyst to Jonah and Matt’s happy ending is a dead girl. The implication is that she was raped and robbed before being left for dead, and it left a sour note for me. Sort of a “yup, murdered girl to move the plot forward for our male heroes? Check.”
Anyways, Australia just voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage, so By the Currawong’s Call is bittersweet to read against that backdrop. From the 1890s to 2017: it’s a long time, and long overdue.
Welton B. Marsland grew up in a township even smaller than the one in this book. With a background in hospitals, WBM has also spent three years covering the Melbourne International Comedy Festival as a reviewer, has had a story displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria, and has even been banned in the state of Queensland. A queer-punk history geek who flits between nature walks, dinky bars, footy matches and live music gigs, WBM lives in the great city of Melbourne with an ex-Army sword-slinger and three idiosyncratic cats.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.