The Blurb (from Goodreads):
Alice Bennett has moved to Norfolk Island with her family who are descended from John Bennett, last commandant of the Second Settlement of the penal colony that was established on the island in the 19th century. John Bennett was a particularly brutal commandant and Allie comes up against long-standing resentment from some of her classmates when she attempts to vindicate him in a history class. Angriest of all is Noah, who is descended from Padraic O’Brien, one of the more outspoken of the convicts. Allie starts to sense her own connection with her past and when she is babysitting for the family who now occupy Government House she discovers a diary and realizes she has uncovered a tragic story.
The story is of Alice Bennett, daughter of the infamous John, who was notorious for the ill-treatment of the convicts under his command. Alice encounters Cormac O’Brien, who is a political prisoner, a gifted musician and possessor of a pair of blue eyes that immediately entrance Alice. They pursue a doomed romance, and tragedy strikes. Alice’s father has been spying on her, and in a preemptive move, orders Cormac to be hanged. Alice’s diary ends abruptly, as she sends her younger sister Susannah to ‘go on to dinner without her’.
Determined to find out what happened to her ancestress, Allie asks a friend in Sydney to see if Alice can be traced. The friend discovers a letter from Susannah, Alice’s sister, to their brother William, explaining what has happened - that Alice, inconsolable at the loss of Cormac, has walked into the sea and disappeared. After the colony is closed up, Susannah goes to Hobart and marries, and William becomes the ancestor of Allie’s family.
In two minds whether to show Alice’s diary to anyone, in the end Allie shows it to Noah, and then to her classmates, in the interests of revealing the truth, and resulting from this, their own developing relationship. Noah, too, has a secret - it seems Cormac and Paddy were forgers, not political prisoners. Allie and Noah, having come to terms with their historical background, are balancing past with present, and moving towards their future.
I really enjoyed this novel! I love books which slip from the present to the past, and I found the setting of Norfolk Island really interesting and atmospheric.
The primary point of view us that of Ally Bennett, a contemporary teenager whose family has just moved to Norfolk Island. Ally is troubled by the fact that her ancestor was the last prison warden of the island and he is loathed for his cruel treatment of prisoners. This causes tension between Ally and some of her fellow school students.
Ally finds a diary kept by her ancestor’s daughter, Alice. It tells the story of a developing romance between Alice and a convict, who are drawn together by their shared love of music. This diary was really well-done – the voice seemed authentic and the historical details rang true.
Ally’s and Alice’s stories touch through time, and the two stories are woven together neatly at the end.
I’ve always enjoyed Felicity Pulman’s stories but I think this is her best to date – and I loved the Australian setting!
You might also like to read my review of The Road to Ever After by Moira Young: