THE PAPERBARK SHOE by Goldie Goldbloom

Book Quote:

“There are things that I learned to do after coming to Wyalkatchem… how to hang a blanket in the boughs of a gum tree and rock a baby to sleep, how to sit quietly at night with a child in my lap, how to feel for a fever, how to boil willow for its cooling sap, how to paint a throat with gentian violet and listen for the smallest breath, how to make a coffin, how to line it with pieces of cotton, how to dress a dead child, how to lower a coffin into the ground, how to put one foot in front of the other and keep on doing it every day.”

Book Review:

Review by Jill I. Shtulman  (APR 22, 2011)

It’s a tough world that’s inhabited by Gin Boyle Toad – an albino, a classical pianist, an unloved woman whose life has been reduced to freak show status with the indelicate stares, the gossip, the pointing. Although she was raised in Perth’s wealthy environs and showed early and sustained musical talent, she is abused and ultimately institutionalized by her cruel and loathsome stepfather.

Her unlikely rescuer is Agrippas Toad, a dwarfish and crudely mannered farmer who happens to hear her play piano and immediately marries her. By doing so, he attempts to stave off the rumors about behavior that is deemed aberrant in his small-minded farm community. It is the “strangeness” of these two that binds them together. Gin Boyle reflects, “It wasn’t happiness. It wasn’t love. But it had been tolerable, so long as there was nothing else.”

Into these unfulfilled lives come two Italian prisoners of war – Antonio and John – part of a wave of 18,000 Italian prisoners of war who were sent to work on isolated Australian farms between 1941 and 1947. The very pregnant and unloved Gin forms a dangerous affinity for Antonio, a shoemaker by trade, who gives her the attention and compassion that is missing from her marriage. In the meantime, Toad is more intrigued by John, for reasons that eventually become evident.

Gin Boyle – aching from the death of her oldest daughter, Joan, also an albino…scarred from years of feeling like a freak…embarrassed that her life has become circumvented in an ugly small town with a small husband who has an obsession with lady’s corsets…feels the stirring of love under Antonio’s appreciative gazes and through his words. But is it real and can it last?

There are some very real strengths in Goldie Goldbloom’s debut book. The prose often soars to lyricism and the description of the landscape is positively breathtaking. In fact, the harsh and unforgiving Australian outback becomes a character in its own right, and the occasional foray of violence – the hunting of the rabbits, the capricious weather, the lopping off of sheep’s tails – is a fine metaphor for the wartime world. In addition, the book presents some meaningful and compelling themes: what “home” really means, the subtle violence of displacement, and how so many of us are prisoners, either literally or metaphorically, either behind bars or within our own skin.

Is it a perfect book? Well, no. Goldie Goldbloom sometimes doesn’t trust her reader quite enough and drums home certain messages: “You are a stone fortress, not a person. When you opened your gates, it was not to surrender to me, but to capture me.” Or, in response to why Gin didn’t lock up her Italian captives, “They’re men. Not animals.” The build-up relating to Joan ends up being undeveloped and here and there, there’s some melodrama.

But even with those fault lines, this is still an imaginative and stunningly original debut, with characters that will remain seared into your memory. Her mesmerizing tale demands to be read and to be appreciated. The book was originally called “Toad’s Museum of Freaks and Wonders” and has been retitled for its U.S. publication.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 30 readers
PUBLISHER: Picador; First Edition edition (March 29, 2011)
REVIEWER: Jill I. Shtulman
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Goldie Goldbloom
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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April 22, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , ,  · Posted in: Australia, Class - Race - Gender, Debut Novel, Reading Guide, World Lit

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