As Mardi’s partner I’m obviously biased, but I think she’s a wonderful writer and this is a particularly wonderful book. Like all her novels it’s not just beautifully constructed and written, but warm and funny and finally very moving. But it’s also very exciting to me because I think there’s little doubt it’s her richest and most emotionally rewarding novel to date.
As some of you may be aware, the novel focusses on an American sailor, Stead, who returns to Sydney in 1943 hoping to see Marina, a girl he met on shore leave during his last visit to Sydney five years earlier. Travelling to her mother’s house he is shocked to discover she is missing, and has been for several years, having disappeared not long after she arrived in London to study music. Knowing he needs to see her, to know she is alright, Stead sets off to find her, beginning a journey that will take him around the world.
As the description above makes clear the book is quite explicitly a romance, albeit a reasonably unconventional one. But it’s also much more than that. Like all Mardi’s novels it’s deeply concerned with the ways women’s lives are shaped by the societies they inhabit, and the choices and compromises they are required to make.
These are questions that are explored with great verve and wit in Mardi’s first novel, Coldwater, which transplants the Bronte sisters to a penal island off the Australian coast (and which was one of the Washington Post’s Books of the Year back in 2001) but in The Voyagers they’re given added heft by the effects of the war, and the way it allowed women freedoms that had never been available to them before.
Given the recent debate about the ways writing by women is still marginalised by the literary establishment I think it’s worth asking why exactly a novel about such questions is marketed as a romance, when a novel about men fighting would almost immediately be classed as capital “L” Literature, but I don’t want to push that point too hard here. What I do want to say is that despite its incredibly elegant plotting and structure the real strength of the book lies in the intelligent and unsentimental depiction of the relationships at its centre, and in particular the complexity of feeling it brings to bear on the relationships between the women whose lives occupy its final third, much of which takes place in a Japanese prison camp, and the children in their care.
Anyway, I won’t bang on too hard. Suffice it to say I think it’s a wonderful, funny and deeply moving book, and one everybody should read. If you’d like to know more about it there’s an interview with Mardi at Booktopia, and you can read an excerpt on Penguin’s website. And while the reviews haven’t really started to come in yet, there’s a very good (and very smart) one on the Readings site, and another in the May issue of Australian Book Review (sadly not online). And if you’d like to buy a copy it’s available from Readings and Booktopia, or you can check prices at Booko (where you can also check out prices for Mardi’s other novels, Coldwater, The Snow Queen and Fivestar). And finally, if all that’s not enough, Mardi’s also a guest at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.