Review Blog

Jan 04 2016

The ghost by the billabong by Jackie French

cover image

Matilda series. Angus & Robertson, 2015. ISBN 9780732295295
(Age: 10+) Highly recommended. Historical novel, 1960's Australia, Man on the moon. Choosing subject headings is very difficult as French crams so much into her historical novels: hints about the growing equality of women, attitudes in the 60's to domestic violence, opposition to war, the imminent landing on the moon, the tracking station in Canberra . . . the list goes on. Reading any of these books beginning with A waltz for Matilda is like reading a great sprawling romance covering generations of characters, all with some relationship with each other and the land, believable characters set against an impeccably researched background. And I love them all.
Australia's history rolls past your eyes, and amongst the history, family dramas, fights and reconciliations, births and deaths, French blends some of the ballads that used to be far more well known: The man from Snowy River, Waltzing Matilda, Clancy of the Overflow, The road to Gundagai and My country. The multi layered relationships between the protagonists are developed over many years and the length of the books needed to make these believable take the readers on their journey, keeping them reading to the end.
In The ghost at the billabong, we meet again Matilda, now in her eighties, nursing her dying husband, Tommy. Into their house comes a stray, a girl called Jed who says she is Tommy's great grand daughter. Matilda tells her to leave, having had free loaders make such claims before, but she relents and Jed is taken to stay with her daughter in law, Nancy who cares for disabled children on the weekend.
Here Jed learns to shake off some of her past hurt, gain their trust and prove she is who she says she is. A tall order, but a story that is so well plotted and told that it takes you willingly with it to the conclusion.
While Jed learns more about the family, they have investigators checking her story and although Jed reveals some of her past, most is a closed and scary book. With Tommy's unwavering interest in the work being done by the tracking stations in Australia for the upcoming landing on the moon, Jed treks to Canberra and finds work at Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station reporting back to Tommy on weekends. The weaving of the moon landing through the story will fascinate the readers, especially the little known work done in Australia.
And if five is not enough, then French has said there will be number six and even another in her notes at the end of this absorbing read. I have relished them all for their reminders of times past and intriguing mysteries, but above all the credible story of a broad acre family reflecting so much of what has happened in Australia since Federation.
Fran Knight

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