Orphan Rock by Dominique Wilson

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Orphan Rock is a single pillar of rock standing alone in the Blue Mountains, beautiful but largely inaccessible. For Bessie’s husband, Bertram, it represents a potential home and future prosperity. But perhaps it is more symbolic of the solitary un-won heart of the woman who stands beside him. We first discover Bessie as a child in the cold and harsh environment of the Protestant Orphan School, clinging to her older friend Lottie, and with no memory of her parents. The inscription on the opening pages of the novel reads
                ‘The truth is you can be orphaned again and again and again . . .
                And the secret is, this will hurt less and less each time until you can’t feel a thing.’

The theme of the orphan, or at least the child lost to its parents, recurs again and again in this story set initially in the 1800’s, and focusses particularly on the difficult lot of women whose only hope of financial security is to make an advantageous marriage. To have a child out of wedlock is a thing of great shame, and to be concealed from society at all cost.

Wilson has thoroughly researched the ideas and attitudes of the era she presents, and we discover the patriarchal society and the subjugation of women, the racism and hatred towards Chinese immigrants, the demonisation of the mentally ill, and the abhorrence of same sex relationships. Bessie is imbued with all these prejudices, ingrained by her upbringing and environment, but her intelligence and curiosity see her gradually reassess those attitudes and embrace the diversity of friendships that are offered to her.

The second half of the book is about Kathleen, Bessie’s daughter, born in Sydney, but who escapes to Paris, to avoid confronting a distressing secret, just prior to the first World War. In many ways, she is just as naive as Bessie was, and has to make her own journey towards open-mindedness and understanding.

Wilson’s novel is historical fiction but includes real characters, people that were significant and well-known at the time, characters such as the eminent Quong Tart, a Chinese immigrant and advocate, and Tilley Devine, queen of a powerful Sydney razor-gang. Wilson also incorporates details of the first world war, the gross injuries and waste of life, and medical issues such as small pox, syphilis, and Spanish flu. On the last topic, her blog on ‘COVID-19 and the Spanish Flu’ highlights similarities and differences between the two diseases, and the responses to the crises.  

So many of the themes of Orphan Rock are still relevant today. On her website, Wilson writes that she is ‘interested in what history can teach us – both the good and the bad’, and issues of what makes a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ person. The characters she presents are complex, human, grappling with finding their own values and their independence, and the issues they confront continue to be relevant to us all.

Themes: Orphans, Family, Prejudice, Racism, Homophobia, Women’s rights, Mental illness, Diseases, Self-empowerment.

Helen Eddy