On an isolated homestead near the town of Wyalkatchem, Western Australia, a young
albino girl comes to make a life for herself, marrying a man who is at best loyal to her but at worst sexually ambivalent. The girl can see the stars from the house above while her two children run wild. Her older daughter, also born an albino, has recently
died, and her haunting voice whispers to her mother long into the night.
An accomplished classical pianist, this girl named Gin Toad has never forgotten what she gave up to come to this backward place,
and we learn of her dysfunctional past and her time at a ritzy private school in Perth. This is Australia during the war years
- a xenophobic, insular country, governed by the fear of “otherness” and of those who are perceived as different.
Like "a pale haunted ghost," Gin feels estranged by the small, narrow-minded community around her. Also alienated are the Italian prisoners of war who have been offered as farm labor. Gin’s husband, Toad, constantly reminds himself the Italians are fascist pigs, cowards, and prisoners as well as lowly slaves who have come to cultivate the desolate Australian hinterland.
At first Gin is afraid of Antonio and John, these over-sexed men, two “rapists in tight little bodies with hot Latin eyes," who are reportedly capable of anything. As heat lifts the scent of lavender from Antonio’s skin, Toad’s “busy eyes” notice everything about these strange, exotic foreigners. Toad offers no pretense or artifice, but Gin is increasingly embarrassed and ashamed of her husband’s ignorance in front of these cultured men who lovingly sing Pucinni's
La Traviata while fervently soaking up Gin's Chopin recitals.
Unexpected romances blossom, fuelling rumors that the men are spies or saboteurs. When Toad suggests an amateur theatrical night to celebrate Christmas, Antonio - always dignified, clean and kind - delicately brushes his hand against the baby in Gin’s stomach. Gin is soon swamped by her own desperate sense of abandonment, the very whiteness of her like “a poison.” In her dilapidated home near a drought-stricken and indifferent desert, the years pass.
She begins to drift away from Toad with his strange collection of Edwardian antique corsetry,
shaven legs, and constant look in his eyes of anger and rejection.
Although I found it difficult to take much of the author’s plot seriously, Goldbloom’s love story is distinctive in its uniqueness. Her characters' torments play out against the vast beauty of the Western Australian landscapes: the rolling spinifex, the hot smells of red dirt, the wedge-tailed eagles that look for prey while magpies call to each other among the crowded ghost gums. This is a world where nature's romance co-exists within the broken hearts of men and women.
Although the novel isn’t for all literary tastes, Goldbloom's visually arresting prose
shines, gorgeously evoking the hardness and despair of rural life. In a place where Australians are mostly tough, weather-beaten and gruff, the author portrays nation on the edge, clouded by suspicion and fear, still decades from the open, more tolerant, and more accepting country that exists today.