It could be trite, but it’s not. Jarulan by the River uses that familiarity to draw you in and lull you into a rhythm, before through its epic family saga, startling you awake again and leaving you desperate to finish the story to find out just how the family will continue to survive together.
Lily Woodhouse is no newcomer to writing. It’s her first book under this name, but with other books written (though under a secret identity!) you can tell Woodhouse is no amateur. She weaves the Fenchurch family almost effortlessly, creating wonderfully dimensional characters that feel as real as the landscape. She also gives the land in northern NSW a living quality, and the rural location becomes as much a part of the family as any other character.
Jarulan by the River begins in 1917 with Matthew Fenchurch, owner of the property Jarulan, and patriarch of the Fenchurch family. His wife is dead, one son has died in battle in France, and another has exiled himself to New Zealand. He spends his time alone in the house, speaking only with those who work on the property. To stave off his loneliness, Matthew decides to build a memorial above the river for his dead son, and for all the other boys who lost their lives in battle. But this decision brings back a family reunion he couldn’t have expected – his daughters and grandchildren returning to Jarulan.
They bring Ruffina, a stranger, and little does anyone know how much she will affect the outcome of Jarulan forever. Add to that ghosts that seem to drift between rooms, past, and present, and a laundry maid with designs on Matthew, and Jarulan by the River is a delightfully heady piece of fiction that is both rich and sensuous. With Woodhouse’s deft descriptions of the heat and humidity, Jarulan feels oppressive and dark, and the comings and goings of the family will capture you.
It’s not just set in 1917, and it’s not just about Matthew. The other characters, such as Rufina and the missing son, come into play in shocking ways, and it’s these twists and turns that make Jarulan by the River so good. Nothing is expected, and it feels as though by the end the only real winner of the book is the land, that always is and always will be.
For fans of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, Bryce Courtenay, and Australian literature, Jarulan by the River is a perfect new piece of Australiana that will leave you itching for Woodhouse’s next book.