Review: To Love A Sunburnt Country by Jackie French

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

To Love A Sunburnt Country by Jackie French
Released: 1st December 2014
Series: The Matilda Saga #4
Published by: HarperCollins Australia
Genre: Australian Historical Fiction
Source: Publisher
Pages: 464
My Rating: 5 of 5 stars
Goodreads | Bookworld | Dymocks
The year is 1942 and the world is at war. Nancy Clancy is 16 and left school to spend a year droving, just like her grandfather Clancy of the Overflow was famed for. Now Nancy's family has sent her to Malaya to bring home her sister-in-law Moira and baby Gavin. Moira is British and married to Nancy's brother Ben, who is now a soldier. Malaya is under threat from the Japanese, but despite the warnings Moira has resisted leaving as she wants to stay near her husband.

When Malaya is invaded, Nancy, Moira and Gavin are fortunate to get out before Singapore falls. When their ship is bombed they end up stranded on an island where they, and some other colonial women, are captured. There begins the nightmare and horror of internment in a Japanese camp. Back home at Gibber's Creek families are doing their bit for the war. They worry constantly about their men who are fighting - and now those who are missing after Singapore falls. Powerful, compelling and confronting, this is a book that pulls no punches.

Filled with emotional truth and heartfelt agony, this unforgettable fourth book in The Matilda Saga continues the journey that started with A Waltz for Matilda.
Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review 

It seems that my appreciation for Jackie French's novels knows no bounds. With each and every story she writes, I find myself even more captivated by her insight into the essence of human nature in some of the most trying times in Australia's history. Though To Love A Sunburnt Country is ultimately a work of fiction, the characters within it may as well be real - because that's what they seem when you read this book. This is a captivating, emotional and heartfelt story which offers us readers a glimpse into how Australia's people were affected by WWII. 

The Nancy who returned home now - and she would return, she must return, and Gavin and Moira too - would not be the urchin who wagged school to go adventuring in tatty moleskins. I know how to dress and behave for the Melbourne Cup or a drover's camp, she thought. I am Nancy of the Overflow and I can do anything...
Including survive.

Although this book could potentially be read as a stand-alone because it does provide a lot of background into the previous three novels of the Matilda saga, I loved seeing all of the past characters make an appearance. Seeing where Matilda is now, with a family of her own, along with Flinty McAlpine from The Girl From Snowy River and Blue from The Road to Gundagai once again showcased Jackie French's talent in weaving together so many different characters from times gone by into one cohesive piece. Of course, the new addition of Nancy as the main character in this novel was the focal point - and what she goes through is nothing short of heart-wrenching. Yet, as always, what I found in this book were strong women who despite facing the impossible, are ready to beat the odds. Their men may be fighting in a war, but 'keeping up the side' is what those who are left behind must do, and that they do well. 

He wondered if this was the real reason women gathered in their precious 'free' hours at night to roll bandages, wrap comfort packages, or organise fundraisers. There was comfort in being together.

Indeed, every character in this novel is admirable, for their bravery and courage manifested in many different ways. There was a real sense of camaraderie which I picked up on, and resilience which can be nurtured when people stick together even when morale hits rock bottom.  Nancy's experience in Pulau Ayu Prison Camp, along with the other women there, including her sister-in-law Moira and her nephew Gavin, was an eye-opener. The way that everybody banded together there and how complex their situation with their Japanese captors were was fascinating. On a wider scale, there is a myriad of perspectives offered by other characters as well, giving the novel a multifaceted perspective into the 1940's in Australian society. From the Drinkwater estate to even the Kokoda Track - the author has captured almost every aspect of what life must have been like for the individuals she has created. 

Tommy smiled at her, his beautiful wife. His handsome son. People of integrity. People who cared about a man they hadn't met, and his family, not to condemn him out of hand. Good people. I have been blessed, he thought. So blessed, a family and a job and a land to love. 

As usual, the historical detail is excellent and you can just tell how much research must have gone into creating a masterpiece like this. The excerpts from the 'Gibber's Creek Gazette', though fictional - offered a unique method of reflecting the attitudes of the time, whereas the letters which the characters wrote to each other were able to convey the events as they unfolded with an emotive clarity. Still, don't be fooled and think that this book is simply going to offer you a history lesson. No - this book is more than that. It is the most emotional of the series, and yes - I cried. In times of war there is bound to be sadness, and some of the tragedies which occurred in the story were shattering. So many innocent lives were touched by things that happened in far-away lands, and this is the reality of war which Jackie managed to so artfully capture. 

Five years ago her life had changed its course, as if in flood, uncontrolled, impossible to stop. Now, suddenly, it was in its banks again. She knew where she was headed, just like the river. 


In reading this book, I have wept at the tragedies and suffering that war brings, yet been in awe at the gleaming hope many were still willing to grasp onto. Jackie French is a renowned Australian author for a reason. She is able to write amazing stories of our country and the tribulations that those before us have faced - maintaining the delicate equilibrium of fact and fiction. It's without a doubt that I can't wait to see what she writes next, because To Love A Sunburnt Country is definitely her best novel yet.


  1. What a beautiful review, Eugenia! I know you adore French so I'll have to give her more of a go this year? I may have to read the others in this Matilda saga though, I don't want to miss out on anything!

    1. Thanks Jess :) I definitely hope you get to read some of her books! A Waltz for Matilda is the first book, and it was the one that really hooked me on her historical fiction.


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