The plot of Cleanskin Cowgirls, the latest soon-to-be bestseller from Australia’s queen of rural romance, Rachael Treasure, is as hackneyed as they come: gorgeous farm girl with low self-esteem, Elsie Jones, moves to Nashville and becomes world-famous country music megastar, but after near-fatal drug overdose and spiritual intervention, realises where she went wrong. The characters are two-dimensional and clumsily drawn, particularly the assorted moustache-twirling villains rolled out to complicate matters for our heroine and her chubby-but-enlightened best friend, Tara.
What sets Treasure above her contemporaries, though, is the authenticity and natural charm of her voice. Here, the teenage Elsie and Tara run away to become jillaroos: “At the heart of the herd was a cluster of big-framed bulls, pimpled on their hides from insect bites, scarred from battles, their horns turning upwards in great wavering spears. They moved like lightning … The horses, though, were locked onto them, their blood up, their instincts keen, leaping scrub, skinning through trees, pressuring, pressuring the invisible bubble of the mob.” Every setting, from Elsie’s drought-stricken family farm to the cattle property’s stock horse yard, is textured and vivid.
There’s also an honesty and lack of cynicism in Treasure’s themes. Tara overcomes a childhood of abuse and misery by reading the personal-development gurus Louise Hay and Dr Wayne Dyer (their books are listed in the “Further Reading” section, at the back), and believes “a bright, sparky person could shift the weight of a negative one”.
The overwhelming focus of Cleanskin Cowgirls, though, is poo.
The girls’ love interests, twins Zac and Amos Smith, are convinced the energy crisis could be solved if the methane-producing potential of human waste could be harnessed. There’s much on this, but mostly Treasure keeps her poo message lighthearted rather than didactic until the very end. “I want to bolster the agriculture component of the project,” says Elsie, the singing cowgirl, “and focus my energies on carbon sequestration of the gas we’re selling into soils by educating people about the importance of grasslands.”
This is populist, wish-fulfilment escapism of the highest order. Kick off your boots and set a spell with this good, clean, if poo-obsessed, fun for the urban cowgirl in all of us. LS
HarperCollins, 416pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 11, 2014 as "Rachael Treasure, Cleanskin Cowgirls ". Subscribe here.