Book review: No Room for Regret by Janeen Ann O’Connell

About No Room for Regret

London, 1811

Chained below deck, 18-year-old James Tedder listens to the sobs of his fellow prisoners. Putting his hand over his nose to filter the vile smells, James wonders how life on the other side of the world could ever be worth living.

London, 1812

Sarah Blay watches the convict ship Indefatigable begin its voyage to the other side of the world with her husband, and his friend James Tedder, on board. One year later, Sarah bundles up her three small sons and says a final goodbye to her mother, and follows her husband to Van Diemen’s Land on a dangerous journey that will take fourteen long months.

Will Sarah regret her decision, and will any of them survive?

My Thoughts

Opening No Room for Regret the reader is grabbed by the collar and thrust into the worlds of twin protagonists James Tedder and James Blay as they are both arrested, charged and transported as convicts to Hobart Town, Tasmania, Australia. Tedder leaves behind his family of origin; Blay leaves his wife, Sarah, and their three sons. After a terrible voyage lasting many months, the men arrive and face some early tribulations, but then both find good fortune in securing positions away from the chain gangs. Tedder works in the stores and Blay for a former convict, James Cullen, on his farm in New Norfolk. What unfolds as these two men serve their sentences is a heartwarming and heartbreaking tale of families intertwining, of convicts gaining their freedom and adjusting to life in a new and strange world filled with curious animals and birds. It is a tale of resilience, survival and common humanity. There are a few antagonists along the way to keep up the tension and the drama, including the despicable Toothless, a convict guard out on a lifelong vendetta to harm Tedder.

Filled with charming characters and well-crafted descriptions, this story flows at a good clip. Above all, O’Connell provides a rich historical overview of the early settlement of Australia, prefacing her chapters with snippets of factual information which add important insights into the plight of the convicts and renders No Room for Regret both entertaining and educational.

The perennial challenge for historical and especially family history novels is grabbing readers from the outset and keeping them absorbed. O’Connell manages both with aplomb, the narration taut and gripping and laced with uncompromising realism. The result is a compelling read that is impossible to put down. No Room for Regret is a fictionalised family history novel of the highest calibre.

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Book review: Wanderers No More by Michelle Saftich

Having read and thoroughly enjoyed Port of No Return by Michelle Saftich, I am delighted to share my review of its sequel, Wanderers No More.

“The war may be over, but the fight to belong is just beginning.

Left homeless, starving, and almost killed by the Second World War, the Saforo family are refugees fleeing Italy for a better life. The shores of Australia are calling to them and they head off, packing dreams of jobs, a home and … soccer.

But from the moment they get off the boat, adapting to the Australian way of life is harder than

it seems. Their family doesn’t speak right, eat right or even look right. As they struggle to build a simple life against the backdrop of 1950s racism, they start to wonder if they will be outsiders forever.

A true family affair, Wanderers No More will make you laugh, remind you of your family, and warm your heart.”

My thoughts:

Stories of migrant refugees form an important part of the fabric of Australian, and indeed global society, as many many millions of us have been or are refugees, refugees of war, oppression, famine or environmental catastrophe. Port of No Return describes how a small group of families from northern Italy become refugees in World War II, and in Wanderers No More, Saftich portrays the everyday life for these families from the moment they set foot in Australia. The novels fall into the genre of family history memoir, as they are based on true events and real people.

Wanderers No More is an endearing coming of age story sure to put a smile on every reader’s face. Told mostly through the eyes of young Martino Saforo, who arrives with his family in Newcastle after spending four years in various refugee camps in Europe, the novel engages from the first page. The early part of the novel describes the harsh life for European migrants sent to government-run labour camps where they are bonded for two years, the men working on infrastructure projects, including the Snowy River hydro-electricity scheme, mining and roadbuilding. Or on farms slashing sugar cane and the lucky ones in factories. Accommodation was Nissan hut style.

Wanderers No More centres on the trials and tribulations of Martino, his brothers and their friends. The women in the story, the sisters and the mothers, have lesser roles which are not developed but provide texture nevertheless. The cameo role of Martino’s ever-present Nonna represents not only the female element, but Italy itself, with all of its traditions. Through Nonna and Martino, Saftich depicts the homesickness, the coping skills, the resilience and the determination to learn Australian ways and language with enormous sensitivity and insight. Simple acts of kindness are juxtaposed with relentless ethnocentric bullying, mostly in the schoolyard. For Martino, Australia seems a harsh and unforgiving land filled with harsh and unforgiving people. Yet hope is ever present, as is Martino’s passion for soccer, which consumes much of the narrative as the novel progresses. Tragedy is ever present, a ghost at first haunting between the lines, and when it finally manifests, it strikes hard.

Throughout the novel which spans two decades, Saftich deploys emotional restraint, the narrative voice commensurate with the heart and mind of a young boy finding his way, a boy who grows up lost, confused, alienated and hurting in so many ways. Anyone familiar with This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff will understand the narrative approach. With its easy, engaging style, and themes of migration, alienation and belonging, this novel belongs on the set text lists in Australian schools.

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