BOOK REVIEW: An Uncommon Woman by Nicole Alexander

BOOK REVIEW: An Uncommon Woman by Nicole Alexander

Transworld Publishers
July 2017
Paperback, $32.99
Reviewed by Natalie Salvo

Fiction/Historical Fiction

6/10

Nicole Alexander’s eighth novel, An Uncommon Woman is about a determined and ambitious girl who defies the conventions of her time. Alexander in good company because the idea of an independent woman living and making her own way in a man’s world is not a new one. Authors like Pamela Hart and Natasha Lester have explored this theme with characters living in the city. Tricia Stringer also had an entire trilogy about Australian pastoralists with a couple of female characters that fit this role.

An Uncommon Woman is ultimately a slow-burning, dense and predictable story about ambition and the challenges of love in the country.

This story is based on real events that were reported in a Tasmanian newspaper in 1933 when an Australian woman purchased her own land. In this book this idea is fictionalised with the plot told from the alternating perspectives of Hamilton Baker and his daughter, Edwina. The former is an unlikeable individual in many ways and readers will find him mean and arrogant. His thinking is also outdated and backward and the characters in this book dislike him because of his job as a money lender, and he is naturally a social climber. Edwina on the other hand is a woman who was born before her time. She’s a feisty lady with a natural aptitude for business even though her options are limited to marriage or domestic servitude.

‘You should go home now, E,’ suggested Aiden. ‘I know you wanted to help with the pear but this isn’t the place for you. Not when I’m seeing the men.’
‘And what am I meant to do? Sit in the house and sew?’ she replied, as they remounted and continued walking their horses through the scrub.
Aiden burst out laughing. ‘We both know that’s one thing you can’t do…You know these men aren’t used to seeing women,’ he continued, ‘even one like you.’ Aiden took in her trousers, shirt and waistcoat.

Edwina’s ambition is especially upsetting when you consider that her brother Aiden has none. He will be handed the family property on a platter, just because of his gender. Yet he couldn’t be more underserving of this responsibility.

While his primary concern was to see Edwina well married, Hamilton worried more about Aiden’s future. The boy was a gentleman farmer with limited ability. Never once had his son argued a point of view with him over anything. And while Aiden was becoming more like him in some ways, in others they were polar opposites. His only son would happily be led around with a ring through his nose, like a stud bull, while his feisty, tomboy daughter needed the strength of a good man to contain her.

The circus comes to town and Hamilton forbids his children – even though they’re young adults – from attending. Edwina defies his wishes and this causes a near-scandal because she is out wearing men’s clothes. She also falls in with a group considered “fast” on account of their drinking and smoking. These acts set off a chain of events that threaten to disrupt the quiet life the family had on the farm. One of these things involves a sub-plot with a lion cub that feels tacked on and unbelievable and remains unresolved at the end of the novel.

A head appeared at the partially open window, then a body. The animal was tawny-coloured with large amber eyes. It looked like a cat. Except it wasn’t a cat. It was a…
‘Lion?’ Hamilton scrunched both eyes tightly shut before refocusing.

While Alexander has created rich and believable characters, most of them aren’t particularly likeable. Hamilton is an absolute bully to his daughter. He’s also conceited and quick to discount women (he even calls his deceased wife’s trinkets, “Feminine nonsense.”) Edwina on the other hand is inspirational in what she wants to achieve but she’s also incredibly strong-willed and a bit too hardened a character. She proves to be just as ruthless and nasty as her father when an opportunity arises that she can exploit. Are we supposed to forgive this because she was ambitious and born at the wrong time?

An Uncommon Woman includes lots of descriptions of the harsh, Australian landscape. This prose feels incredibly authentic so it should come as no surprise that Alexander is a fourth generation grazier. It is also apparent that the environment the characters live in requires lots of hard work and yakka. But whether readers will enjoy immersing themselves in this unforgiving environment where time moves slowly and whilst being amongst such difficult characters remains to be seen. If you like the idea of a feminist spin on a story of a little Aussie battler then you might enjoy this particular trip to the country and for everyone else there’s always a visit downtown with a similar idea by a different author.

BOOK REVIEW: An Uncommon Woman by Nicole Alexander

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