Atlas Productions, Australia, 2020
This debut novel set in Brisbane in the 1890s provides the perfect vehicle for an author with the twin passions of history and social justice.
Joanna Beresford chooses for her heroine Lilian, a young working class woman from an immigrant background, who is forced to fend for herself in the quest for education and improved social standing – and often merely to survive.
Lilian’s story takes us into the world of the domestic servant, focusing on the differing lots and lives of the privileged and the poor, of women and men.
The story also explores baby farming – its roots in poverty and disadvantage, the unequal rights of and expectations for women and men, and the nature of the experience both for the carers/wet nurses and those with children they cannot keep.
Set against the backdrop of the Brisbane flood of 1893, with the river a metaphor of the class divide, the story depicts a time of transition as Brisbane moves from a colonial outpost to a bustling industrial and business centre.
With characters drawn from the full gamut of the social strata, Every Year I am Here presents a sympathetic view of a young woman also in transition from adolescence to womanhood, trying to make sense of her own often precipitate actions, and to come out on top when circumstances so frequently contrive against her.
Her own foolish decisions are more the product of youth and inexperience than malice – and of a desperate need to escape the drudgery and tedium of her domestic servant’s position.
A balanced view of the comfortable classes is given in the characters of the fabric merchant Hamilton family, along with Cora and Archie Miles, whose kindness and compassion contrasts so forcefully with the Shaws, for whom Lilian works as a maid.
The friendships of women are also a major theme in the novel as we see them played out in the relationships Lilian has with her sister, fellow maid Catherine and sister-in-law Dorothy. The redemptive power of truth and forgiveness provide a sense of hopefulness in a tale that perforce delves at times into the dark sides of human behaviour.
Joanna Beresford has researched her topics thoroughly and thus endows the reader with a good understanding of the society and times that form the backdrop to her family saga. This is the best way for us to gain insight into the past, drawing on the lives of people with whom we can identify and with whose struggles we can sympathise.
It is after all through the minutiae of the domestic we all know that we see the bigger picture of our national history. The author’s determination to gloss over none of our national and personal missteps will pull readers back to her work in future.
Thank you to Atlas Productions for the review copy. Joanna’s book is available from online booksellers or on request at your local bookstore.