Review: The Heaven I Swallowed by Rachel Hennessy

Title: The Heaven I Swallowed

Author: Rachel Hennessy

Published: Wakefield Press 2013

Read an extract

Status: Read from July 16 to 17, 2013 — I own a copy {Courtesy the publisher}

My Thoughts:

I was surprised to discover The Heaven I Swallowed, a runner up in the 2008 Australian/Vogel awards, to be such a compelling read for me. While the premise was of interest I had no real expectations of it, yet I found it utterly absorbing within the first few pages.

Set in Australia not long after the end of the second world war, middle age widow Grace Smith takes charge of a half-cast twelve year old orphaned aboriginal girl, named Mary.

“She was just a young child and I had the entire world to give her” p11

While there is some truth in Grace’s stated intent to help Mary, though framed in terms of ‘rescue’ from the heathen and ignorant influence of her nature, Grace’s reasons for accepting Mary into her home are far more complex than she will admit to herself and have very little to do with what she can give the child.

In part Grace hoped that she would gain the esteem of her community for her her selfless act of charity. A woman who believes in rules, Grace lives in fear of breaking those she doesn’t understand and unfortunately the expected praise is not forthcoming.

“It should have occurred to me…that their idea of the proper way to make a difference was to simply give more, to increase the weekly donation dropped into the padded green velvet of the church collection plate or continue with their afternoons at various charity shops. No one really wanted to see Mary there…” p37

Lonely, the widow also hopes that in some manner Mary will be a substitute for the child she miscarried years before but Grace is flustered by Mary being both older and darker than she expected. Additionally Grace is torn between ensuring Mary learns discipline, manners and a good work ethic and wanting to share affection with the girl. Raised in a strict orphanage by largely punitive nuns Grace has no real idea how to create or nurture an attachment and appearance of kindness is a double edged sword for Mary.

Strangely though, it is difficult to dislike Grace as much as you might expect to. I found her utterly intriguing though I am not so sure she would be so to everyone. In me she inspired pity for her desolate background, her ignorance, her awkwardness and lack of self awareness. Not that it excuses her poor behaviour in any way, nor is it a reason to forgive it. There is no small sense of satisfaction that in the end Mary extracts a kind of noble revenge.

While The Heaven I Swallowed is in part a commentary on the Stolen Generation, it was the complexity of the character of Grace Smith which held me enthralled, I put it down only once, and resented even that.

Available to Purchase from

Wakefield Press I Boomerang Books I Booktopia

via Booko


12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Khris
    Jul 20, 2013 @ 07:30:47

    Looks like a great book , can’t wait for my copy to arrive so I can start reading.
    Thanks for the great reviews , since discovering your blog my to be read shelf and on my Kindle has grown at a rapid rate !!!!



  2. whisperinggums
    Jul 20, 2013 @ 22:58:14

    I enjoyed this too Shelley. A very interesting and quite different portrayal of the topic. (BTW In your second last para, did you mean “dislike Grace” not “Mary”?)



  3. Teddyree
    Jul 22, 2013 @ 12:26:29

    Sounds like a very interesting read, having lived many years in aboriginal communities I’ve got quite strong opinions on this topic so I wonder what my reaction will be?



  4. Trackback: July 2013 Roundup: Diversity | Australian Women Writers Challenge
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