Cover Image: The Ripping Tree

The Ripping Tree

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Member Reviews

Thanks to Netgalley for a copy of this book for an honest review.  

I'm not sure what to make of this story.  It was almost a DNF at about 30% but I persevered.  It got better but I didn't love it.
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First Impressions:

This is my first Nikki Gemmell novel and I am in love! Her writing style is lyrical and so much passion for her craft comes forward in the way she narrates the story. For example, 'I miss my father, corrosively' That really hit home for me. Wonderful how one word can give such impact. 

The cover, though beautiful and colourful, didn't quite reflect the story that was weaved within. 

Overview analysis:

The Ripping Tree is set in the early 1800s and follows the story of Thomasina Trelora who, since her beloved father's death is on her way to the colonies to marry a man she has never met. By a stroke of luck, the ship she travels on is hit by a storm and she is the only one to survive the wreckage. Thomasina is saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to a house that belongs to the Craw family.

As the story unfolds, we soon learn that things are not what they seem within the Craw family. Where the initial hope was for some kind of hospitality and safety soon becomes the opposite. Thomasina begins to realise she may have escaped marrying a stranger in the colonies, but in exchange, has come to situate herself in something even darker as deep secrets unfolds within the Craw family home.

Recommendation:

I highly recommend this for people who enjoy historical thriller with a thrilling spin. 

Personally, I am now interested in reading more Nikki Gemmell novels.
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An impressive historical fiction set in colonial Australia. The story is framed by a grandmother reading from some papers to her grandchildren, the story of a house called Willowbrae and what happened to her there when she first arrived. She was the only survivor from a shipwreck and an aboriginal man rescues her and carries her to the big house, where the Craw family lives. The youngest son known as Mouse names her Poss. She doesn’t reveal her real name as she was supposed to be married to a vicar, so she keeps silent to see if she can change her life. 
It then ventures into the dark history of early white settlement and the author doesn’t shy away from the horrific aspects. 
The paragraphs are mostly short and there’s a lot of atmosphere, almost gothic. It takes place over seven days and the story is unsettling, in parts shocking. Indigenous issues aren’t the only theme here, the treatment of women especially diagnosis of hysteria as a form of control in society is also touched on. The characters are all a bit over the top, I think they’re deliberately exaggerated to create the atmosphere and it mostly works. But for me there was something missing, even though I couldn’t look away. Perhaps it lacked heart...I didn’t really feel close to Poss, and the Craw family are all awful, Mouse excepted, though he is traumatised.
So this is a strange read, interesting, thought provoking and dark.
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The Ripping Tree is a troubling but thought-provoking story, colonial Australian gothic, told in author Nikki Gemmell's characteristic style - short chapters, unflinching observation and unusual cadence.
The book opens with a family returning from a day trip to a colonial mansion, Willowbrae, renowned for it's grand crenelated architecture and manicured gardens. Their elderly grandmother, who chose not to attend the excursion for reasons of her own, then reads to them from a sheaf of handwritten pages "...a terrible tale, full of pain and anguish and trauma. It's a ghost story, a haunting, or perhaps a horror story - you be the judge." (p.2). Her narrative forms the substance of the book.
Following her beloved father's death, teenaged Thomasina "Tom" Trelora is torn away from her life in Dorset, England, by her imperious older brother, Ambrose. Against her wishes, the free-spirited Tom sets out by sea with Ambrose and his wife to the expanding colony of New South Wales, where he owns land. She's to be married off to a colonial vicar, a man she's never met. They've almost reached their destination when an all-too-common tragedy strikes - their ship, the Finbar is wrecked, and Tom - who, unusually for a woman in the early 19th century, can swim - the only survivor.
Tom is mysteriously rescued from the shallows and carried by a dark-skinned man to the nearby Willowbrae homestead, where he leaves her on the threshold, tenderly wrapped in soft bark torn from a nearby paperbark tree (Melaleuca quinquenervia). Shocked and delirious after her ordeal, she's discovered by the Craw family, who own Willowbrae and the surrounding farming land. At first she's welcomed for her convalescence, especially by Mrs. Craw, who yearns for female company and a substitute daughter, since her own died in childhood. The youngest child, a lonely little boy known as "Mouse", quickly claims her as his own and proclaims her to be a mermaid. Seeing an opportunity to escape her fate as a vicar's wife, Tom feigns amnesia as to her identity and antecedents, and is christened "Poss" by Mouse, an identity she carries for the remainder of the narrative.
As Poss's strength and natural curiosity return, she begins to explore Willowbrae and the surrounding bush with Mouse, becoming aware of jarring attitudes held by the family towards the local indigenous population. A shocking discovery in one of Mouse's favourite secret haunts leads Poss to speak up and seek answers - inevitably creating trouble for her in the conservative Craw household. As Poss stands by the convictions she's learned from her father - principles of truth, justice and fairness for all - her position becomes increasingly dangerous on the isolated property.
Nikki Gemmell explores themes of female self-determination and subjugation, historical prejudice and xenophobia, collusion and isolation in this gothic tale. Tom/Poss is a beguiling and fascinating character, her self-assurance and outspokenness an anathema to the staid and oppressive household in which she finds herself. The ordered claustrophobia of Willowbrae presents a stark contrast to the wild beauty of the surrounding landscape, though both hold many dangers for Poss as an intruder. The eponymous "ripping tree" embodies an ever-present metaphor, both for Poss's search for truth and for the covering-up of injustices by the colonisers.
I found The Ripping Tree a fascinating, if troubling, read, and Poss an engaging character. However, I was left feeling short-changed by the rather abrupt ending to the book. Realistically, I wasn't expecting all the wrongs to be admitted and atoned for - the range of injustices inflicted on the indigenous population sadly remains a issue in modern-day Australia. But I desperately wanted to know more about the resolution of Poss's story and to what extent was she able to reconcile her experiences at Willowbrae and thereafter. I also found the dialogue anachronistic at times and felt some of Poss's behaviour really stretched credulity, even allowing for her unorthodox upbringing.
I'd recommend The Ripping Tree to readers who are prepared for a grittier depiction of Australian colonial history than may be found in many of the more romanticised alternatives available on the market. The book will also be of interest to readers who seek unique female perspectives in historical fiction.
My thanks to the author, Nikki Gemmell, publisher Harper Collins Australia and Netgalley for the opportunity to read and review this title.
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At the age of sixteen, Thomasina Trelora, "Tom", finds herself sailing for Australia to be married to a vicar she's never met. She's had a radical upbringing and isn't too happy with the plan for her future, particularly the lack of any say in the matter. There is a shipwreck along the coast and Tom finds herself rescued by an aboriginal man from the wreckage.  She's left on the verandah at Willowbrae, a well-to-do estate belonging to the Craw family in the middle of nowhere. At first, she feels she has gained a reprieve and due to her (feigned) lack of memory, she tries to fit in with the family. It soon becomes obvious there are massive secrets at Willowbrae and perhaps her future well-being is not best served there. 

This was a lovely story with flowing and evocative language, which contrasts with the ugliness of the early colonial days of the British settlements in Australia. As the story unravels, we are confronted with the atrocities committed towards the Aboriginal peoples at the time. There is no way to soften the blow of what happened but I found this book addressed all of that with Tom, or Poss, as she is known locally. Her beliefs in fairness, justice, and equality for people are challenged at every step. Even the few family members she has formed alliances with are not quite what they seem and she finds herself as alone as ever. While Poss is decidedly progressive in her thinking, she also soon recognises she may have been mistaken in some actions she takes, especially with regard to native people she encounters. 

The story is told over seven days from the time of the shipwreck, which sort of makes me think of the biblical seven days, in which quite a lot happens. Religion plays a major part in the story, with Tom having quite a different attitude towards god and religion to her contemporaries. Her upbringing has made her an independent young woman in a time when this isn't socially acceptable. It's another confronting aspect of life during this time with non-conformity putting a woman at risk of being sent away due to "hysteria". 

I found this to be confronting, thought-provoking but quite a pleasure to read. It flows beautifully from start to finish and leaves the reader with much to consider. I give this book a solid four stars. 

Thank you to Netgalley and Harper Collins Australia for sharing an advanced reader copy in exchange for a fair review.
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I’ve always felt that reading a Nikki Gemmell novel was like sinking into a big, cushiony bed. Even more than that – a bed with velvet canopy curtains and three more pillows than necessary. Clearly I am not as adept at vivid world building as this accomplished author, but hopefully you get my drift. Every sentence is captivating. Why use one adjective when several possible descriptions are there for the picking? Open the book. Jump in. Sink down into its layers until it envelopes you. The crush of it.

But while I can happily meander through Gemmell’s rich landscapes for long hours, the complex writing sometimes distracts me from her stories. It can take too long to get to the point, or to make a heartfelt connection with characters. Not this time. I fell for The Ripping Tree’s feisty lead, Poss, from the opening lines and ripped through the novel in a day. Fast paced and intriguing, with dynamic, well-crafted protagonists, this is a really satisfying read. It is one part historical horror story, and one part very contemporary reflection on Australia’s national reckoning with its colonial past.

The novel opens with a grandmother promising a thrilling tale of derring-do to some eager young ‘uns. She introduces them to a long hidden book – the tale of Poss, a British girl experiencing a cultural epiphany in colonial Australia. Her real name, Thomasina, is one of many secrets she keeps when she finds herself the sole survivor of a shipwreck. She wakes up in the care of the God-fearing and well-respected Craw family, and their imposing estate, Willowbrae. This grandmother, with her ‘mottled and papery hands’ alludes to a close knowledge of this Poss and her tale, and a story within a story unfolds.

Recently orphaned, the too-loud, too-wild, 16 year old ‘Tom’ has been sent to Australia by her brother as a promised bride for the local vicar. Powerless and penniless in this patriarchal society, she has boarded the ship, but always with thoughts of transgression brewing. The shipwreck takes Tom’s whole former life with it – her brother, her clothing, a friend (lover?) she has met on the ship. While this is a tragedy, she realises it might also bring a fortuitous reimagining of her future. She quickly finds a job as a governess for the charming 7 year old son of the Craws, Mouse. As long as she keeps her true identity a secret, and doesn’t cross paths with the vicar, perhaps she can start again? A new, free life without all those men shaping her in their desired image?

But Gemmell knows, as we do, that such fortuitous journeys for women in the colonies were the stuff of storybooks only. The truth was one of hardship, discipline, repression, subservience. It does not take long for Poss to realise that outspoken young women will find no friends at Willowbrae. The threat of being taken to the local asylum for ‘hysterical’ women is ever present if Poss does not learn the expected rules of etiquette and obedience.

Versions of this feminist plotline have been written before, but Gemmell brings a freshness to it through Poss and Mouse’s delightful relationship and the nuanced characters that make up the rest of the household. But where The Ripping Tree really sings is when examining Australia’s black history.

Poss was rescued from the shipwreck by a ‘native’ who deposited her at the Craw home. Over time, Mouse also lets on that he has been playing with Aboriginal children on the property and, when the first of the novel’s horrors strikes, it is an Aboriginal mother and baby who suffer. But as Poss seeks to learn more about the local inhabitants, the Craw family closes ranks. They deny any wrongdoing towards the ‘natives’. They deny, in fact, the existence of Aboriginal people on their estate. Poss realises that her inquisitive mind may have uncovered, and perhaps even unleashed, unimaginable horrors. Mr Craw has made a promise to his wife to eradicate ‘them’ – these semi-humans, these pests. Poss is outraged.

But Poss has much to learn. The Craws remind her that she is a newcomer, and there are certain things that must be accepted. It’s just the way of things. But as Poss questions and argues against this bizarre and unjust logic, the reader, too, questions and argues. Poss’ position as an outsider is her advantage. She manoeuvres her moral compass and measures her responses against those of people she admires, like her humanitarian father. She expresses her deep grief and horror at the subjugation and exploitation of the local people – even when she must also fight to protect herself, and Mouse, from the wrath of her oppressors. Deep themes of justice, fairness, and taking a knife to the status quo are the undercurrents of this tale.

Neither feminist activism nor racial equality are new topics in fiction, and yet here we are in 2021 STILL fighting. Poss’ wide eyed curiosity takes these enormous, horrendous concerns and distils them down to some relatively simple points – these behaviours are illogical and unfair. How did our ancestors ever think they made sense? This book deftly shows us why we need to keep telling these stories, asking these questions, again and again and again, to make progress.
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The Ripping Tree is poetic, evocative and confronting. Nikki Gemmell brings the reader to the harsh landscape of Australia in the early years of colonisation, and the shameful treatment of the First Nations People. 

I was immediately captivated by the lyrical prose, which draws you to the protagonist, Thomasina, and her early life in England. It becomes apparent early in the narrative, that “Tom” is ahead of her time. Raised by her single father, she has been educated and given the gift of freedom and independent thought - a rarity for young ladies of her time. 

Sadly, upon her fathers death, she is shipped off to be married against her will to a stranger in the far away colonies.  Fate intervenes and she finds herself the lone survivor of a shipwreck, lovingly cared for, then deposited on the doorstep of grand home “Willowbrae”, by a mystery indigenous man. 

Thomasina sees this as an opportunity to reinvent her future and upon befriending the youngest child of the family, sets out to create a new path for herself. But the determination she so fiercely displays is ultimately the thing that could be her undoing, as she uncovers the truths hidden and the injustices that she feels compelled to bring to light. 

The Ripping Tree is at times confronting, but it is within this honesty that it’s true value as a historical novel sits.  It delves into the dark and uncomfortable truths of early colonialism, and the subsequent treatment of the First Nations People.  Nikki Gemmell holds a mirror up to Australians, and challenges us to look away.
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‘What’s going on here ... it feels like there are layers and layers of things going on here and I want to peel away at Willowbrae’s secrets like the bark on the Ripping Tree until a bare core of truth and honesty is exposed, and nothing else is left.’

This book came as a big surprise - not the book I initially thought it would be. The writing style is unique and clever but the story .... hmmm ... at first I was not convinced, however, by the end I was a convert. With short, sharp chapters, this is an engaging and confronting tale of a strong willed young girl caught up in a horrifying family secret from Australia’s disturbing colonial past. 

Nikki’s historical novel featuring the early settlement of Australia, certainly delves into a dark time in our history. There is so much to ‘The Ripping Tree’, with nothing as what it would seem and fueled by writing that is both unique and strangely captivating. 

"Pa once taught me an old Celtic phrase - ‘the thin places’ -to describe those little pockets of the natural world that feel closer to the mysterious energy that drives all the earth. He said the thin places arrest you with their strange power, and the Ripping Tree glade, despite all the trauma it’s seen, feels like one of them. I want to be stilled by it, healed, and learn more about it.’

The main theme pertains to the absolute horrific disregard and treatment of Australia’s Indigenous culture in the early 1800s. There are recounts and scenes that readers must be warned are both distressing and disturbing. However, as a student of history myself, I know these stories to be an accurate portrayal from my own previous reading. Credit to Nikki for presenting these details and not shying away from them.

The other strong emphasis relates to the treatment of women during this time period. With the main character being strong and determined, refusing to conform to societal expectations, she was quick to be labelled as difficult and at times hysterical with proposals to institutionalise her. 

‘ .. once again -just as before ... men have imagined a life for me that completely disregards the life I’ve imagined for myself .’

So although this book takes a little to get into and has strong confronting themes, the intense yet cleverly crafted writing of Nikki’s is sure to both unsettle yet entice her readers to learn the story behind, ‘The Ripping Tree’. 

‘Let’s just say my little tale is a history of a great colonial house that was burdened by a situation that was never resolved, and I fear all over this land will never be resolved. It is our great wound that needs suturing and it hasn’t been yet and I fear, perhaps, it never will be, for we’re not comfortable, still, with acknowledging it ... We’re not comfortable with exposing stories like this to the air and the sun and salt. And I cannot give you the native side of this tragedy, my loves, because I don’t begin to know it, or them; I can’t speak for them. But I respect them and acknowledge them and love them for the riches they bring to all of us, and I know we are remiss.’    





This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.
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In the early nineteenth century, motherless teenager, Thomasina Trelora (who calls herself Tom) is being taken by her brother to Australia after the death of her father. Once there he plans to marry her off, against her wishes, to a clergyman. When they are shipwrecked in a storm off the Australian coast she is the only survivor and after being rescued is left on the doorstep of Willowbrae, a grand European style mansion owned by the Craws, a wealthy farming family. Mrs Craw, mother of three sons, is delighted to have a young girl in the house, after her own daughter died of snake bite at the age of three, and when Tom feigns amnesia, suggests she could stay with them to be a governess to her youngest son, who answers to the name of Mouse.

Allowed to run free by her father, Tom (now nicknamed Poss by Mouse) is a wild child who speaks her mind and loves the outdoors. She has trouble conforming to the Craws expectations of her and prefers to explore with Mouse. However, when they make a tragic discovery, she discovers that all is not as it seems at Willowbrae and sets in train a series of events that threatens her freedom.

Nikki Gemmell’s historical novel of the early settlement of Australia delves into a dark time in colonial history and the devastating treatment and disregard for its first nations people. It also highlights the treatment of women who don’t conform to the conservative conventions of the time and the ease with which they could be labelled as mentally ill and treated as hysterical just for speaking their minds. Written in a lively style with short, snappy chapters this is an engaging tale of a strong minded young women caught up in a horrifying secret.
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Nikki Gemmell turns her hand to historical fiction and shines a light on some of the most disturbing aspects of colonial Australian history. I thought it was a success, and I largely enjoyed (appreciated) it, but all the way through I kept returning to the same question. Who was this written for? I'm still not sure.

It's the early 1800s and a shipwreck off the coast sees 16yo Thomasina Trelora, half-drowned, cut and bruised, rescued by an indigenous man and delivered to the doorstep of Willowbrae, a European oasis in the remote Australian bush. The man rips strips of soft bark from a tall tree to cover her and preserve her dignity, and leaves her to be discovered by the resident Craw family. When Tom wakes, the first person she meets is young Mouse Craw, a 7yo boy who is desperate for a real friend. The two hit it off, but still Tom is wary so she chooses to conceal her identity and Mouse gives her a new name, Poss. As Poss becomes acquainted with the remaining family members, she is met with degrees of suspicion, indifference and outright hostility. Mouse seems to be her only reliable ally, but when the two go exploring and stumble across a tragic scene, even Mouse might tun on her when she insists on doing 'the right thing'.

The story takes place during the course of a week, so naturally it flies along at a good pace. A lot happens, alliances are formed and broken, and the dark, secret past of Willowbrae is uncovered. Poss is a wonderful character - smart and wilful and resourceful. And these are the very qualities that certain members of the Craw family want to stamp out. Gaslighting existed long before we had a recognisable name for it, and although very realistic for the era, in this story it made me feel very uncomfortable. That's probably why the second half of the book began to drag a little for me - I kept setting it down because I didn't like Poss's lack of agency. But I acknowledge it takes a good writer to make the reader feel that way, and here Gemmell is at her best. In some ways the literary feel of the book softens, but in other ways emphasises, the despicable attitudes to and treatment of the indigenous people of the area at that time, and I must warn that some readers may find certain passages extremely distressing in that regard. Apart from the darkness, there's also a lot of light and humour and even a gothic touch or two.

As to my question of audience - Poss/Tom is still a child, but one old enough to have the beginnings of erotic thoughts and urges. One moment she is happily playing with Mouse, the next she is taking a bit of a tumble with his older brother. She seems wordly, but with no history or reason to be that way. I think there's not enough to interest a YA audience, and yet she seems too young to carry off an adult fiction label. This book put me in mind of The Observations by Jane Harris, which I also enjoyed but found equally puzzling. I'm happy to recommend The Ripping Tree, but I'm not sure to whom I would recommend it!
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There is so much to this story. Nothing is what it seems in the story, and for Tom, previously known as Thomasina.  You see, Thomasina is about to marry a vicar when the Australian seas collides with her ship and leaves her for dead.  She is rescued by an Aboriginal man who carries her to her capture at Willowbrae, unknowingly reuniting her with a world she no longer wished to be a part of. Tom is a woman who speaks her own mind.  She can swim. She is nick-named the Mermaid, and escapes her vanity by cutting off her hair and being more comfortable in pants than a dress and panatloons and wanting to run around outside. At Willowbrae she hopes to use all of this to her advantage, but something is not right. In fact, nothing is right.
It is almost like a fisherman reeling in his catch in slow motion; a little slack is offered, and then the reel tightens its grip around Tom the more steps she thinks she is taking in the right direction.  She stumbles across a horrifying secret at the heart of this world of colonial decorum - and realises she may have exchanged one kind of prison for another.
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