Review: The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline

Title: The Exiles

Author: Christina Baker Kline

Published: 15th September 2020, Custom House

Status: Read September 2020 courtesy HarperCollins/Edelweiss


My Thoughts:

Inspired by true events, The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline is historical fiction set in the 1840’s, and follows the fortunes of three very different women.

When Evangeline is found in possession of a family heirloom gifted to her by her employer’s absent son, the naive young governess is arrested and imprisoned in Newgate to await trial. She bears the deplorable conditions only because she expects to be rescued when her lover returns and learns she is pregnant, but she is convicted and sentenced to fourteen years transportation on Van Diemen’s Land.

During the journey to Australia, Evangeline meets Hazel, a Scottish teenager sentenced to seven years for stealing a silver spoon. The daughter of an alcoholic midwife and healer, Hazel offers Evangeline some ginger to combat her nausea, and the two develop a friendship of sorts, supporting and protecting each other during the long and unpleasant journey.

As the ‘Medea’ makes its way across the ocean, nine year old Aboriginal orphan Mathinna is taken from the only home she has ever known among her people on Flinder’s Island at the whim at the Van Diemen’s Land Governor’s wife. Installed in Government House, Mathinna is expected to embrace the English way of life, learning French, and ‘perform’ on command for the Governor’s guests.

I can’t fault Kline’s research in The Exiles, I’m not unfamiliar with the historical details of women’s experience of transportation, colonisation, and convict life, and I believe the author’s representation is accurate, from her descriptions of the squalid overcrowding in Newgate Prison, to the perils of the convict ship journey, and life inside a ‘female factory’ within the colony. Women and girls were subjected to excessive punishment for the pettiest of crimes, condemned without empathy or concession, their transportation to Australia was essentially a life sentence, if they survived the journey.

For me however the characters of Evangeline and Hazel seemed to be lost within the historical framework. There is nothing particularly unique about them, or their experiences, that I haven’t read in a textbook, or a novel on a similar subject. While I was interested in learning their fates, I didn’t really form much of an emotional connection to either of them.

Mathinna’s story illustrates the attitudes towards, and the treatment of, Australia’s First Nation’s population during British colonisation. Considered no more than ‘ignorant savage’s’, they were either cruelly slaughtered, or corralled and exiled from Van Diemen’s Land (now known as Tasmania) to smaller, poorly resourced islands, or camps, and forced to adopt a ‘civilised’ lifestyle. By the mid 1840’s less than 50 full-blooded aborigines remained alive, and by the turn of the century there were none.

The Franklin’s, who take Mathinna from the camp on Flinders Island, barely treat Mathinna better than a pet, and abandon her the moment they lose interest in their ‘experiment’ to tame a ‘savage’. While Mathinna’s story is significant in and of itself, and in general reflects the experience of her real-life counterpart, it doesn’t really integrate into the story as a whole. Mathinna only briefly crosses paths with Hazel while she is living at Government House when Hazel is assigned there to serve as a maid, and as such there is a disconnect in all but theme.

It’s not that I didn’t find The Exiles interesting or agreeable, it just didn’t quite engage my imagination or emotions in the way other similar novels have, though I do think it’s likely someone less familiar with the history will be affected differently.


Available from HarperCollins US

Or from your preferred retailer via Booko I Book Depository I Indiebound


11 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Garrulous Gwendoline
    Sep 16, 2020 @ 11:40:52

    I was very interested in this review. Due to the controversy over American Dirt, I have been having a discussion with a friend about who has the right to tell certain stories. Then your post last week brought The Exiles to my attention, and I wondered how a US author would deal with this history which is so familiar and fundamental to most Aussies – or at least, family historians. Sadly, if an Australian author had released this book in the States, I doubt it would even rate a mention, let alone readership. I love this quote from her website, “Christina Baker Kline has established herself as a novelist who plumbs noteworthy but LITTLE-KNOWN facets of the past”.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Marg
    Sep 16, 2020 @ 22:19:09

    I have this to read in the next few weeks. I am curious to read it as an Australian reading an outsiders take on Australian history.

    Liked by 1 person


  3. carhicks
    Sep 16, 2020 @ 23:21:53

    I am familiar with the prison ships, but did not realize that women were also exiled. I am very interested to learn more about that aspect. The Native Australians have had a very difficult road and I did not realize that there are not any full blooded ones left. I think this book will enlighten me quite a bit. I do think the Christina Baker Kline does excellent research on the topics she covers, so I am looking forward to this one. Thanks for the great and honest review Shelley.

    Liked by 1 person


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  5. Deb Nance at Readerbuzz
    Sep 21, 2020 @ 03:51:27

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am very interested in hearing them as this book sounded good to me.

    Liked by 1 person


  6. Susie | Novel Visits
    Sep 21, 2020 @ 23:47:47

    I was happy to find your review. I was a little disappointed in Baker Kline’s last book and after reading just a bit of The Exiles, I decided it wasn’t what I needed right now. I feared it just wouldn’t grab me and your review confirms that. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person


  7. Laura @ Library of Clean Reads
    Sep 22, 2020 @ 09:57:13

    I’m on the fence with this one now that I’ve read your review. Thanks for your thoughts. If I read a book that is heartbreaking it has to be worth my while in every way.

    Liked by 1 person


  8. Susan
    Sep 23, 2020 @ 11:22:08

    Thanks for your review … I too am on the fence about whether to read it … perhaps I will eventually … I’m interested in the history of it — though I’d rather connect with the characters too.

    Liked by 1 person


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