Review: ‘Sisters of Freedom’ by Mary-Anne O’Connor

Sydney, Christmas, 1901. Federation has been achieved but Australian women are yet to gain the right to vote in their new nation’s elections and have a say in the laws that govern them.

Bolshy, boisterous Frankie Merriweather is a fervent advocate for women’s rights, determined to dedicate herself to the cause, never marrying or becoming a mother. She can’t understand her artistic sister Ivy, who wants a life of ease and beauty with her soon-to-be fiance, law student Patrick Earle.

Meanwhile, their married sister Aggie volunteers in an orphanage, decrying the inequality of Australia’s social classes … and longing to hold a baby in her arms.

When an accident takes Ivy, wounded and ill, into the violent and lawless zone of the Hawkesbury River, a year of change begins. Ivy’s burgeoning friendship with her saviour Riley Logan, a smuggler, and his sister, the poverty-stricken but valiant Fiona, will alter the lives of all three women forever.

Australia’s queen of historical romance Mary-Anne O’Connor has done it again.

Sisters of Freedom takes place in amongst the rampant social, economic and legal disparity that was Australia in 1901. But while it was all those things, it was also a time of great anticipation. Despite the extremely negative aspects of Australian society at this time, especially for Indigenous Australians and women, Federation Australia was a time of change and hope for what the new century could bring.

Sisters of Freedom is firmly situated in this zeitgeist, and O’Connor uses it to paint a rich tapestry of life, exploring what it was like not just for those fortunate enough to come from wealthy backgrounds, but for those less fortunate, and especially those who suffered extreme violence, and racial and/or sex-based discrimination.

O’Connor does not shy away from making the shocking levels of wealth inequality in Australia at the turn of the last century, as well as the inequality before the law suffered women and Indigenous Australians an essential part of the drama in this novel. While the protagonists, sisters Ivy, Aggie and the admirable bluestocking Frankie, come from a privileged family, they also come from a household that is relatively radical in its own way, which fosters their consciousness and desire for change. The reader is given the immense satisfaction of watching them encounter, be shaken and become transformed by shocking disparities that even they had no real grasp on, when they are immersed in the immense poverty, male pattern violence and lawlessness of the Hawkesbury River at the turn of the last century.

The way that these observations affect the sisters, and the way that the resolve to use their positions of privilege to effect change, is perfectly situated in Australia’s current political climate, as we continue to call out for lasting change and justice for the systematically harmed and dispossessed members of our community.

But it wasn’t just the political content that had me inhaling this story. Mary-Anne O’Connor has an unparalleled ability to capture the spirit of the Australian landscape with words. The way that she paints the look and feeling of the Hawkesbury River is absolutely superb, and made my heart sing. Reading it made me feel like I was travelling up that river myself, not knowing what was around the corner.

Mary-Anne O’Connor uses her skills and experience to weave all of this meaty background in with a story that is so full twists, turns, and human drama, that it comes together as a fantastic page turner.

This is one of those books that is an instant classic of Australian literature. I absolutely devoured it. It is a book about all of us – the country that surrounds us, the volatile periods that it has gone through in recent history, and where we are still going, together, as we strive towards a fairer society.

I heartily recommend Sisters of Freedom to readers of all ages and stages. You’re going to love it.

Published by Victoria B

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