The Ripping Tree
by Nikki Gemmell
This title was previously available on NetGalley and is now archived.
Pub Date 07 Apr 2021 | Archive Date 01 May 2021
HarperCollins Publishers Australia, 4th Estate AU
An illustrious family. A beautiful home. A shipwrecked young woman left on its doorstep.
Don't think they're going to save her.
A new novel from international bestselling author, Nikki Gemmell.
Early 1800s. Thomasina Trelora is on her way to the colonies. Her fate: to be married to a clergyman she's never met. As the Australian coastline comes into view a storm wrecks the ship and leaves her lying on the rocks, near death. She's saved by an Aboriginal man who carries her to the door of a grand European house, Willowbrae.
Tom is now free to be whoever she wants to be and a whole new life opens up to her. But as she's drawn deeper into the intriguing life of this grand estate, she discovers that things aren't quite as they seem. 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.
The Ripping Tree is an intense, sharp shiver of a novel, which brings to mind such diverse influences as The Turn of the Screw, Rebecca and the film Get Out as much as it evokes The Secret River. A powerful and gripping tale of survival written in Nikki Gemmell's signature lyrical and evocative prose, it examines the darkness at the heart of early colonisation. Unsettling, audacious, thrilling and unputdownable.
'You are likely to be so distracted by [the beauty of the writing] that you realise you have missed the story ... and the only thing to do is go back and start all over again. If ever a book deserved to become a classic, The Ripping Tree does.' The Canberra Times'
'An immersive tale of intrigue, friendship and female independence. Think Sofia Coppola's The Beguiled meets Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock.' Sydney Morning Herald
'A beautifully descriptive yet unsettling tale of survival' Herald Sun
'Nikki Gemmell's new novel proceeds in full knowledge of the ways antipodean place corresponds to older Gothic tropes. And it manipulates these, often superbly, to replenish the ability of the genre to shock and disturb ... it is designed to thrill and entertain. But it also reminds us that this continent remains unsettling to those who settled it. Gemmell has always had a deft touch for narrative. Here she takes the panoply of effects Gothic has to offer and drives them till they are blowing froth and bleeding at the flanks.' The Australian
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 11 members
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.