#aww2018 · 2018 Reviews · Australian · contemporary fiction

Book Review: The Whole Bright Year by Debra Oswald

Title: The Whole Bright Yearthe whole brigh year small

Author: Debra Oswald

Published: January 29th 2018

Publisher: Penguin Books Australia

Pages: 288

Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Australian

RRP: $32.99

Rating: 4.5 stars

In the summer of 1976 it’s picking season on an Australian stone-fruit orchard run by Celia, a hard-working woman in her early forties. Years ago, when her husband was killed as a bystander in an armed robbery, Celia left the city and brought her newborn daughter Zoe to this farm for a secure life. Now sixteen, Zoe is a passionate, intelligent girl, chafing against her mother’s protectiveness, yearning to find intensity and a bit of danger.

Barging into this world as itinerant fruit-pickers come a desperate brother and sister from Sydney. The hard-bitten Sheena has kidnapped her wild, ebullient eighteen-year-old brother Kieran and dragged him out west, away from trouble in the city. Kieran and Zoe are drawn to each other the instant they meet, sparking excitement, worry, lust, trouble . . .

How do we protect people we love? How do we bear watching them go out into the perilous world with no guarantee of safety or happiness? What bargains do people make with darkness in order to survive? From the creator of Offspring and author of Useful, The Whole Bright Year is a gripping, wry and tender novel about how holding on too tightly can cost us what we love.

My review:

The life changing events that occur one hot summer at a stone fruit farm in Australia in the year 1976, is the story of The Whole Bright Year by scriptwriter turned author, Debra Oswald. This is an intricate and meaningful tale of growing up, letting go, falling in love and making mistakes.

The Whole Bright Yearis author Debra Oswald’s second title for the contemporary adult fiction field. It picks up in the throes of picking season. The owner of the orchard, Celia, works tirelessly on her farm. Celia is also a widow and a mother to sixteen year old Zoe. While the move from the city to country has afforded Celia and Zoe and safe and secure environment, things are about to be shaken up by the appearance of two strangers. Finding she is desperate for fruit pickers at the height of the season, Celia has no option to take in two young blow ins to her farm. It is a fateful decision that has far reaching implications for Celia, daughter Zoe and the two workers, Sheena and her younger brother Kieran. The Whole Bright Year is an enthralling tale of family relations and love, in all its forms, told with plenty of heart and conviction.

I love tales that bring characters from the city to the country in search of a different life, or a way to escape an old life. In the case of The Whole Bright Year, the main character Celia made the move from the big smoke to the country, as a way to escape the grief over the sudden loss of her husband who was tragically killed. Even more heartbreaking for our lead, Celia was pregnant at the time her husband was killed. It has meant that she has had to bring up her daughter Zoe alone. Zoe also sadly never knew her father. Naturally the two have a very close relationship. The stone fruit farm Celia has managed for sixteen years is her heart and soul. The farm has helped distract Celia from her overwhelming grief and give her a purpose, so she can live again. As the book opens, the farm is about to produce its most successful harvest ever, but all this is at stake due to the lack of pickers available to collect the fruit. Lucky our side characters, Joe, Sheena and Kieran come to the rescue.

The Whole Bright Year is filled with some very well defined characters. Each protagonist has their own very distinct personality and Oswald does a very good job of teasing all aspects of her characters out. As a result, we to get to know the assets, as well as the flaws of all the characters in this novel. Oswald’s characters got firmly under my skin and my impression of them shifted with the turning events of the novel. I believe Oswald’s characterisation is of a high standard. This extends to both her leads and her side characters. In particular, I must mention the elderly character in this novel, Rosa. She is one the most well defined characters I have read in a book for some time. She really stood out from crowd. I personally loved Rosa’s place in the novel, her wise observations on the events going on around her was endearing.

In terms of the narrative, I enjoyed and felt very entertained by this novel from the start to the close of the book. I found myself quickly drawn into the busy peach harvest season and through Oswald’s storytelling abilities, I often felt like I was a bystander, watching all the events from this book unfold. As a mother, I was able to relate to Celia and understand her struggle between allowing her daughter Zoe assert her independence and wanting to protect her from no good. I had a horrible sinking feeling in my stomach as Zoe was drawn to Kieran and the turn of events between these two young people left me feeling just as frantic as Celia. All I can say is Oswald approaches this scenario of a teen gone off the rails and a mother trying to pick up the pieces with realism and insight. Kudos to Oswald for tackling this situation headfirst, in an authentic manner.

By far the thrill of this novel came from the orchard scenes. I was taken aback by Oswald’s rich descriptions of a typical working day on a busy stone fruit orchard. I breathed in the pungent scent of the ripe fruit, ready for picking. I could envisage the tractor amongst the orchard, as well as the all important sorting and packing process with accomplished worker Rosa. I could also literally feel the sweat and sticky heat of the sun beating down on the workers, their bodies heavily laden with the bulging picking bags of peaches. I could be greedy and say I wanted more of these farms scenes, as I took great enjoyment in these sections of the narrative. I loved the opportunity this storyline presented to learn about the peach farming industry, thanks Debra! I liked how timeline wise, we get a full season of fruit picking through the sequence of the events that take place in the book.

Although I would class The Whole Bright Year as an entertaining read, buried beneath the surface of this book is some serious issues indeed. Oswald examines the difficult territory of parenting a teen and in doing so, tackles a dangerous form of first love. She pulls apart this situation with skill and introspection. Overall, it is a very tumultuous ride for all the characters in this book, with some surprising and not so surprising results.

The Whole Bright Year is firmly rooted in the nostalgic seventies. I loved being transported to this not too distant age in Australia’s past. The pop culture and references to everyday fixtures (games and phones) reminds us of how far we have come. However, falling in love for the first time and the pressure of parenting a wayward teen alone are very much the same problems faced by those today, as in the past. A very real and visceral tale, The Whole Bright Year is a book that I would not hesitate to recommend.

The Whole Bright Year by Debra Oswald is published on January 29th 2018 by Penguin Books Australia. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Whole Bright Year, Debra Oswald visit here

The Whole Bright Year is book #21 of the Australian Women Writers Challenge

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