Review: In The Company of Strangers by Liz Byrski

Review: In The Company of Strangers

Author: Liz Byrski

Published: Pan Macmillan September 2012

Synopsis: Ruby and Cat’s friendship was forged on an English dockside over sixty years ago when, both fearful, they boarded a ship bound for Australia. It was a friendship that was supposed to last a lifetime but when news of Cat’s death reaches Ruby back in London, it comes after a painful estrangement. Declan has also drifted away from Cat, but he is forced back to his aunt’s lavender farm, Benson’s Reach, when he learns that he and Ruby are co-beneficiaries. As these two very different people come together in Margaret River they must learn to trust each other and to deal with the staff and guests. Can the legacy of Benson’s Reach triumph over the hurt of the past? Or is Cat’s duty-laden legacy simply too much for Ruby and Declan to keep alive?

Status: Read from September 17 to 19, 2012 — I own a copy {Courtesy Pan MacMillan Australia}

My Thoughts:
In this engaging character driven novel, author Liz Byrski draws together a group of very different people after the death of Catherine Benson, the proprietress of a lavender farm and holiday park, Benson’s Reach. A complex web of old and new connections are examined to reveal an intricate tangle of friendship, love, betrayal and loss amongst strangers, friends and family.

Estranged from Catherine for years, Ruby is stunned to be left controlling interest in Benson’s Reach and reluctantly returns to Margaret River, Western Australia, after a forty year absence, intent on tying up loose ends quickly and returning to her life in England.
Wrestling with his guilt over neglecting Catherine in her final months, anxious about Ruby’s arrival and struggling to remain sober, Catherine’s nephew, Declan, is overwhelmed by the responsibility of being made a partner in his late aunt’s business.
Declan’s offer of a job and a place to stay at Benson’s Reach is a source of relief for Alice who has her freedom after serving five years in prison but does not know how to move on with her life.
Frustrated by her confused feelings about her thirty six year long marriage Lesley decides to spend two weeks alone at Benson’s Reach in the hopes of working out what she wants from her life.
Each weighed down by their pasts and uncertain about their future, this disparate group of strangers must also contend with Catherine’s legacies including a lonely teenage boy, an abrasive cleaner, and the practicalities of reinvigorating Benson’s Reach.

While some of the characters in In The Company of Strangers are difficult to like, they are all intriguing individuals. Initial impressions are challenged as the author reveals their past tragedies and disappointments as well as their present hopes and desires. I especially liked how Catherine was revealed to be deeply flawed after she is initially presented as an almost saint like figure. Liz Byrski is one of the few Australian writers whose books feature mature age women, Ruby is in her early seventies and Alice and Lesley are only ten years younger. I think it is wonderful to see these women realistically represented in fiction, defying the age bias so prevalent in society.

While the story focuses on character, one of the interesting elements of the novel is Byrski’s references to the UK Child Migrant Scheme during World War II. The program saw thousands of young children sent to Australia, some, like Ruby, were lied to and told their parents were dead, others were relinquished by parents convinced Australia offered their children grand opportunities in the sunshine, while many others, like Cat, were orphans. Shamefully many of the children were subject to exploitation and abuse by the religious institutions charged with their care.  Provided with only very basic care, regularly humiliated and beaten for minor transgressions, Ruby and Cat were deeply affected by their experiences and forged a close bond to survive the adversity. It is a touching moment when Ruby witness the public government apology and is finally able to let go of some of her anger and bitterness over her lost childhood.

Heartfelt, poignant and perceptive In the Company of Strangers is a wonderful novel. Though I have enjoyed her previous books, this is perhaps my favourite by Liz Byrski and I look forward to the next.

Available To Purchase

@Pan Macmillan Australia I @BoomerangBooks I @Booktopia I @Amazon Kindle

Via Booko

3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Kate Loveday
    Sep 21, 2012 @ 09:56:29

    This sounds wonderful. I can’t wait to read it. Thanks Shelleyrae.

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  2. The Australian Bookshelf
    Sep 22, 2012 @ 18:06:57

    I think you enjoyed this one a little more than me Shelleyrae. Though i did really like the aspect where Liz explores issues pertaining to the child migrant scheme and the effects it had on Ruby and Cat’s lives.

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  3. Dale Harcombe
    Nov 03, 2012 @ 08:47:25

    looking forward to reading this one. Love Liz’s books esp. Last Chance Cafe.

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