Connie, matriarch of Scribbly Gum Island, has died and left her house not to a family member, but to her great-grand-nephew’s ex-girlfriend, Sophie. For the first time in nearly a century, someone outside the sprawling family will be living on the island, privy to the island’s secrets. Scribbly Gum Island houses the famous unsolved Munro Baby mystery, and has profited quite well off that mystery. But not all is quite as it seems, and with Connie’s death and Sophie’s arrival, this 75+ year old story starts to unravel.
Let me start by saying that I was so very confused at the timeline of this book when I began. Connie is somewhere in her 90s when she dies, and yet there’s a flashback from the early 1930s, when Connie is 19 years old. The numbers added up to make this story contemporary with the early 2000s, yet 1) the book is copyrighted 2020, and 2) there’s no indication of this being semi-historical fiction. The story never deliberately says, “Oh btw, it’s 20 years ago that this takes place.” Which again, just had me really confused, until I found out that this book was only re-published in 2020, and it originally came out in 2005! Everything made a lot more sense then.
So 20 years ago is not traditional historical fiction (when written modern day), and yet, in books that do take place 10, 20, 30 years in the past, there’s a lot of shaping that corresponds more to the publishing date. There’s nothing wrong with historical fiction, but to be honest, it never feels 100% accurate to me, so I tend not to read much of it. Going back and reading books from a former time period, written in that time period, is a different story, though. That’s what this was. Apart from anything about the story itself, this is a time capsule of the early 2000s. The R-word was still in use. Cell phones and texting were very new, and conspiracy theories about cell phones being dangerous to your health were common in younger folks as well as older. Floppy disks were still a thing. Homophobia was rampant, and there was a prominent theory that bisexuality was just a cop-out for people unwilling to truly commit. And so on. None of this was scrubbed from the book when it was repackaged for re-release. It’s all there, giving a straightforward look into what life was like two decades ago.
Of course, many of us lived through those years, and we can remember all the things I mentioned in that last paragraph. But it’s interesting to look back on that time period and see the way we’ve changed as a culture. It was frankly shocking to see how much fatphobia was in this book. Some of it was purposely blatant, making a statement about the cruelty behind it, but there was far more than that, so much that it felt like something entirely subconscious – just part of the collective mindset of the time period. Much of the discussion around postpartum depression – another major portion of the book – was handled with the uncertainty of a mental health issue that was only starting to grow in public consciousness. That’s just to name a few items.
Like many of Moriarty’s books, this one affected me on multiple levels, particularly in the discussions about motherhood and how not all mothers actually feel motherly, and in the disharmonies that begin to split apart relationships. Moriarty always manages to hit home in one way or another. But I can also tell that there’s a certain early-days feel to the book – some issues with timelines, and the need for a little shocker twist at the end (which was unnecessary and kinda took away from the book, tbh). It won’t stand out among my favorites of her books, but it’s not the worse I’ve read from her either.