Review: Waratah House by Ann Whitehead

Title: Waratah House

Author: Ann Whitehead

Published: Michael Joseph July 2012

Synopsis: In the tradition of Downtown Abbey comes a vivid story of life in the servant’s quarters. Waratah House, a beautiful mansion in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, is the only home Marina has ever known. Orphaned at a young age, Marina finds a new family in the colourful characters that occupy the bustling servants’ quarters of this stately house. But not every resident of Waratah House has Marina’s best interests at heart and she finds herself forced into exile. Years later, Marina’s daughter Emily discovers the past has a way of repeating itself. She must fight for her chance at happiness – a chance that some will do anything to prevent. Read an Extract

Status: Read from July 10 to 11, 2012 — I own a copy  {Courtesy Penguin Australia}

My Thoughts:

Waratah House is an engaging historical drama spanning the turn of the 20th century in colonial Australia. Set in the southern Highlands of New South Wales, amongst the servants of the household, Whitehead has created a story that explores tragedy repeating itself from one generation to the next and the strength it takes to rewrite one’s destiny.

In the first quarter of the novel we are introduced to Marina whose short life is dogged by superstition and misfortune. My sympathies lay squarely with the young girl, orphaned and then horribly victimised by Sarah, her reluctant guardian. Marina is very nearly overwhelmed by Sarah’s bitterness though it is tempered somewhat by the love and care of Cookie and the other staff of the House. When an ill-advised relationship results in Marina being banished from Waratah House, she is left to fend for herself on Sydney’s streets. Months later Marina, destitute, ill and starving, returns to Waratah House, desperate to find a haven for her newborn daughter.
The story then moves ahead fifteen or so years to introduce Emily, Marina’s daughter, who seems to be untroubled by her mother’s history. Emily is content spending her days helping her mother, Cookie, in the kitchen and treasures her close friendships with the other children of Waratah House. A good natured child she is oblivious to the rivalries, resentments and passions that seethe below the surface until double tragedy strikes and, as did Marina, Emily finds herself at the mercy of Sarah’s burning dislike. It seems that happiness will be as elusive for Emily as it was for her mother.
To be honest I’m not entirely sure how I feel about the change in protagonist which essentially divides the story into two parts. As a whole the story just felt a little unbalanced and I would have preferred the story been Emily’s with Marina’s explored in some other manner. That being said I found I became invested in the lives of both women, hoping both would find happiness, preferably at the expense of Sarah.
Sarah is perhaps the most complex of Whiteheads characters in Waratah House. As a result of a miserable childhood, Sarah’s thoughts and emotions are badly distorted. She is the catalyst for many of the tragedies that occur in the story but unable acknowledge any responsibility, shifting blame without conscience to Marina, and later Emily. She is wholly unlikeable and yet so damaged as to be almost pitiable.

I enjoyed Waratah House particularly for its period setting but also for the strong characterisation and dramatic plot. This is the first book I have read by Ann Whitehead and has piqued my interest in her previous novels, especially Australia Street set in  1940’s inner city Sydney.

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About the Author

Ann Whitehead was born in Sydney and now lives on the coast in southern New South Wales. Ann has won awards and is a published author of plays, short stories and novels for children, young adults and adults. She is the author of the bestselling Australia Street, The House Across the Road and another novel, Blackwattle Road, was written under the name of Ann Charlton. Her new novel, Waratah House, will be published in early 2012.

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