Alice is only nine years old in 1910 when she is sent to the feared Coast Hospital lazaret at Little Bay in Sydney, a veritable prison where more patients are admitted than will ever leave. She is told that she’s visiting her mother, who disappeared one day when Alice was two. Once there, Alice learns her mother is suffering from leprosy and that she has the same disease.
As she grows up, the secluded refuge of the lazaret becomes Alice’s entire world, her mother and the other patients and medical staff her only human contact. The patients have access to a private sandstone-edged beach, their own rowboat, a piano and a library of books, but Alice is tired of the smallness of her life and is thrilled by the thought of the outside world. It is only when Guy, a Yuwaalaraay man wounded in World War I, arrives at The Coast, that Alice begins to experience what she has yearned for, as they become friends and then something deeper.
Set in a 19th century leper colony, Eleanor Limprecht’s historical fiction The Coast pivots around a cast of characters all directly impacted by leprosy in Australia in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Exploring love, family and courage, and set in the remote Little Bay just outside of Sydney, we meet a series of characters all forced into isolation after being diagnosed with leprosy.
The Coast centres around a largely unknown time in Australian history – the oppression of people suffering from leprosy and their subsequent shaming and forced isolation.
This novel offers what feels like a birds eye view of that era. We meet characters suffering from leprosy or perhaps working in the colony, but the story is void of any judgement or opinion. Eleanor is simply presenting the time as it likely happened, for us to interpret and understand on our own.
“I was not brave enough to ask Dr Moffat why he came now, rather than when we were feverish. Asking questions of adults was insolence. Wearing white cotton gloves, he scraped our skin with a little razor and placed it in a tiny lidded dish.”
Written in both first and third person, each chapter moves between characters – their POV and the accompanying year is stated at the beginning of the chapter. Eleanor offers an intimate voice, paired-back and emotional as we come to understand each character and how their lives have been impacted by the leprosy colony.
Eleanor’s writing has much to offer, bringing to life quite a large suite of characters and inviting us to fall in love with each of them. They all seem quite hopeless in the beginning, plagued by something they don’t understand or perhaps something they cannot control. But, over time, characters intersect and find solace in each other and their experiences. As the reader, we warm to their plight and find their journey both heartbreaking and heartfelt.
“He watched a moment’s grief pass over Clea’s face, but when she raised her hand to touch her hair it was gone, as quick as a fish leaping. He knew more than she thought he did.”
For those perspectives written in third person, Eleanor’s voice takes on that of an omniscient POV – we understand not only their movements and their situations, but their perspectives and feelings on their surroundings. And for the protagonist Alice, who is written in first person, whilst she is treated as an outsider and her leprosy forces her into isolation, she gets to spend time with the mother who left when she was young (who also suffers from leprosy). There is a contrast here that is quite interesting to read – her illness allows her to reconnect with her mother, and there are elements of her life that are a comfort to her. But at the same time, she and her mother are treated as lepers, hidden away from society with only each other for company.
Just a tiny note, but I did find it a little confusing at first trying to keep track of the characters. The perspectives shift quite frequently and I had to flick back to triple check whose story I was reading, what year it was, and how that corresponded to the previous chapters.
“Some days, instead of fury, I succumbed to weariness. I would stay in bed longer than I should, watching the square of daylight from the window shift across the bedroom. I read all of the book Dr Stenger brought me, all of the books I could borrow, but it was not the same as school.”
Vivid literary fiction with harsh, wild landscapes and damned but hopeful characters, The Coast is suitable for readers of literary fiction and historical sagas. Fans of familial tales might also enjoy this one. Readership skews female, 30+
Thank you to the publisher for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Allen & Unwin Book Publishers