Mardi McConnochie,
(Doubleday, 2001)

Mardi McConnochie recasts the Bront‘ sisters into the daughters of a penal colony governor on the stark island off the coast of Australia that gives the book its name.

Raised by their widowed father, Charlotte, Emily and Anne Wolf are educated and well read far beyond what was considered suitable for young women in 1847. They have lived on Coldwater for eight years, having arrived when in their early 20s. The women keep house for their father, read and dream, their lives punctuated only by occasional dinners with the officers stationed at the colony.

After an attempt on Captain Wolf's life, the sisters decide to try their hand at novel-writing in hopes of being able to support themselves in the event of their father's death. They take to the task with a will, particularly Emily, and all is well until a convict named Finn O'Connell arrives on Coldwater. Captain Wolf senses that O'Connell is no ordinary convict. He makes him one of his "special" prisoners, those who show promise and receive education and training. Before long, O'Connell is assigned to be Captain Wolf's valet.

This is the beginning of the end as the introduction of the convict into the household is the first step on a downward spiral of events. The sisters are especially caught up in these events and their secure world is sundered.

The novel is narrated mainly from the point of view of the sisters. Charlotte's narrative is written in first person, and her tone is calm, reasonable and somewhat self-absorbed. Emily's sections convey her thoughts tumbling wildly with dramatically capitalized words, while Anne's narrative is in third person, forcing the reader to step back from her. She is a more complex character than either Charlotte or Emily, and the third-person perspective brings out her personality with necessary detachment. Interspersed throughout are entries from Captain Wolf's writings which document his disintegration.

The book reads quickly; the compelling story engages the reader from the first sentence. The writing is polished and tight. McConnachie writes with a sure hand, steady vision and just the right amount of melodrama in her portrayal of the grim, bleak island that serves as a backdrop to the sisters' story.

Coldwater is an impressive debut for a talented and promising new author.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]
Rambles: 3 August 2002

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